Renewable advocate estimates cost of switching to wind for electricity at ~ $3.6 trillion

October 11, 2013

Davis Swan is an advocate of conversion to what he terms a sustainable energy economy.  However, he is clear eyed about the costs of such a switch.  His conservative estimate is $3.6 trillion for a full on switch to wind power, vs. about $250 billion to replace all coal burning plants with natural gas burning plants.   Of course, the latter comes with its own costs – nat gas has other valuable uses, and electricity generation is incredibly wasteful (the US burns about 40 trillion BTUs worth of energy to create about 13 trillion BTUs worth of end use), so going totally natural gas would be throwing away roughly two thirds of our shale age bounty, and using it up long before its otherwise useful life.

The appealing thing about wind and solar is that you don’t really lose anything in conversion to electricity – the wind and, to a lesser degree, that solar energy can not be put to any other use at that time and place, so capturing and converting it to electricity does not represent a system loss.  However, neither can provide base power on non-windy or sunless days, and Davis estimates that the cost of adding storage capacity to wind and solar farms would and another 2 to 2.5 trillion dollars to the total cost.

There is a third way, as long time readers of this blog are aware:  Carbon capture and utilization.  Rather than eliminating the use of cheap, plentiful coal, make the plants more efficient by capturing their CO2 emissions and converting them to methanol.  The methanol can then be used as either liquid fuel or even to generate electricity itself.  This allows us to use wind and solar where it makes sense, to extend the lifetimes of our two most plentiful fossil fuels, and to reduce our national carbon footprint at the same time, likely at a much lower cost than the $5.5 to $6 trillion economic cost of a 100% switch to renewables.


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