Environment Florida misleads voters on renewable energy costs

Environment Florida is actively misleading Florida voters about the costs of renewable energy. The deceptive practice is part of an attempt to build support for restrictions on conventional energy. Specifically, Environment Florida is inducing Floridians to believe the falsehood that renewable power is less expensive than coal and natural gas power and will reduce Floridians’ power bills.

On the “100% Renewable Energy” tab on the Environment Florida webpage (https://environmentflorida.org/programs/fle/100-renewable-energy), the group makes an economic argument for more renewable power, stating, “In many states, wind power is now cheaper than gas or coal.” The clear implication, for people casually reading the assertion but not taking the time to closely analyze the claim, is the same would be true in Florida. Environment Florida’s assertion, however, is neither factually supported nor applicable to Florida.

First, as a general rule, wind power is more expensive than coal or natural gas power. It is for this very reason that wind power activists lobby so powerfully for taxpayer subsidies and laws requiring a certain percentage of each state’s electricity generation to come from renewable sources. If wind power were less expensive than – or even merely cost-competitive with – coal and natural gas power, these subsidies and mandates would be unnecessary. If and when wind power is less expensive than coal or natural gas power, the wind power industry will not need government to force or induce consumers to buy wind power. A good comparison and documentation of the higher costs of wind and solar power versus coal and natural gas power is provided here by the left-of-center Brookings Institution: https://www.brookings.edu/blog/planetpolicy/2014/05/20/why-the-best-path-to-a-low-carbon-future-is-not-wind-or-solar-power/.

Second, wind power is particularly uneconomical in Florida. Wind power potential varies greatly throughout the United States. The best places for wind power production tend to be along mountaintop ridges and on the high plains where winds blow quite frequently, steadily, and fairly strongly. Anybody who has lived in Florida knows these conditions do not exist in Florida. The U.S. Energy Information Administration provides an illustrative national wind power potential map showing that Florida is one of the states where it is most difficult and uneconomical to generate wind power (https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=4630). Accordingly, Environment Florida telling Floridians that “in many states, wind power is now cheaper than gas or coal” is completely irrelevant to Florida and Floridians. Worse, it misleads many Floridians into wrongly believing that if wind power is inexpensive in other places, it would be inexpensive in Florida, too.

Third, Environment Florida does provide appropriate documentation for its assertion that wind power is less expensive than coal and natural gas power in some states. Instead, it merely makes the assertion and provides a link to an online article in The Atlantic. The article in The Atlantic, however, merely claims, “on-shore wind is competitive with fossil-fuel-burning plants in many parts of the world.” This is a far cry from asserting that wind power is less expensive than coal and natural gas power in many states. For example, “cost-competitive” is not the same as “less expensive.” Cost-competitive merely means that in somebody’s subjective opinion there is not a huge price difference between the two. Also, “in many parts of the world” is not the same as “in many states.” This is especially true given that America’s abundant coal and natural gas resources result in American electricity prices being much lower than most other countries. In Denmark and Germany, for example – two nations that have made a concerted effort to generate much of their electricity from wind power – electricity prices are triple those of the United States (https://www.ovoenergy.com/guides/energy-guides/average-electricity-prices-kwh.html).

Fourth, even if wind power were less expensive than coal or natural gas is in some states, no state generates all – or even most – of its power from wind turbines. Wind power may be cost-competitive in some portions of a few states where conditions are ideal for generating wind power. However, trying to ramp up wind power to 100% – or anything approaching 100% – even in the those states will result in much higher wind power prices because wind power companies will no longer be able to cherry-pick from the limited locations where wind power conditions are ideal.

Fifth, claims that wind power is cost-competitive with coal and natural gas power often misleadingly apply the retail cost of wind power after receiving substantial and disproportionate subsidies (see https://www.eia.gov/analysis/requests/subsidy/) versus coal and natural gas power. In reality, consumers pay the retail price for wind power on the front end in their direct electricity bills plus the cost of wind power’s much higher subsidies in the form of household tax payments on the back end. So in the limited circumstances where the retail price wind power may be cost-competitive with the retail price of coal and natural gas does not mean that the overall costs to consumers are roughly similar in total. The retail price of wind power is only a portion of the costs consumers pay, with disproportionately high tax subsidies being another important cost.

Sixth, wind power advocates often attempt to compare the generation costs alone of wind power versus the generation costs alone of coal and natural gas power. However, the equipment and construction costs of wind turbines per unit of power generation are much higher than the equipment and construction costs of coal and natural gas power plants per unit of power generation. By ignoring wind power’s much higher equipment and construction costs – which must be factored into the final cost of power – and simply talking about the cost of power generation once the equipment is in place, wind power apologists attempt to divert attention away from the actual, total costs of comparative power generation.

Seventh, coal and natural gas power plants can be built almost anywhere. They can be built close to population centers that utilize the most power and require the construction of few if any new transmission lines. Wind power, however, is rarely generated in large, economical quantities close to population centers. Very few large cities are located along mountaintop ridges and high plains. That means most new wind power projects require the construction of long, very expensive transmission lines to deliver wind power to where electricity is needed. For example, the 780-mile Rock Island Clean Line, currently under consideration in Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana, is projected to cost $3 billion, or nearly $4 million per mile (https://energynews.us/2017/12/04/midwest/burying-wind-energy-transmission-line-may-avoid-permitting-complications-developer-says/). Wind power apologists rarely assign the very high transmission line construction costs to wind power when making their cost-comparison claims.

Eighth, wind power is intermittent and requires conventional power generation to be ready on demand when the wind isn’t blowing or when the wind isn’t blowing at optimal speed to meet electricity demand. This requires conventional power plants to be cycling – but not producing power – while the wind is blowing. This also requires conventional power plants to frequently and rapidly ramp up and down to match wind power variations. Each of these factors impose burdens on conventional power generation that make producing conventional power more expensive than would otherwise be the case. Importantly, cost comparisons of wind power versus conventional power rarely correct for the higher operation costs imposed on conventional power by wind power. These higher costs should properly be assigned to wind power rather than coal and natural gas power.

Viewed in total, Environment Florida asserts an article in The Atlantic documents that wind power is less expensive in some states than coal and natural gas power. The Atlantic article, however, makes no such claim. Even if The Atlantic article made such a claim, the conditions by which wind power might reach cost-competitiveness with coal and natural gas power do not exist in Florida. This is especially the case given many of the hidden costs of wind power that do not appear in retail power bills or economic assertions by wind power apologists. Instead, honest cost comparisons, like the study published by the left-of-center Brookings Institution, confirm that wind power remains much more expensive than coal and natural gas power. If this were not so, wind power advocates would not place so much importance on immense taxpayer subsidies and laws requiring consumers to purchase wind power.

Fortunately for Floridians, Florida’s natural-gas-dominant electricity production keeps prices low and poses only minor environmental challenges. Natural gas emits only a small fraction of the traditional air pollutants generated by coal power, and only half the carbon dioxide emissions. As a result, and despite substantial air conditioning usage to compensate for Florida’s subtropical climate, Floridians generate fewer energy-related carbon dioxide emissions per person than all but 11 other states (https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/state/analysis/). Moreover, Florida’s natural gas power avoids the tremendous land development, environmentally devastating mining off rare earth minerals required for the construction of wind turbines, and the prodigious bird and bat mortality imposed by wind turbines

Environment Florida may try to sell Floridians one bill of goods regarding wind power, but the facts tell us they are peddling economic snake oil.


About the Author: CFACT

CFACT defends the environment and human welfare through facts, news, and analysis.