I know a lot more about solar than I do about wind, having worked in the solar industry. However, I reported on wind energy for BCC Research in several published (and still available) reports, so here goes.
To my mind, solar has several big advantages compared to wind. First, sunshine is much more reliable than wind. Second, panels last twice as long as turbines, maybe more–a lot of panels are still producing well long past their sell-by date. Third, wind turbines require far more maintenance than solar. Other factors to consider are attractiveness (people have fewer objections to being next door to a solar array than a wind turbine), footprint, noise, bird kills, etc.
But wind power is still a potent entry into the field, manufactured by very large companies for sale to very large companies. (Which is something else that puts me off–with residential solar it’s a consumer product, requiring consumer satisfaction and with higher levels of competition working to lower prices). So why is wind such a popular choice by governments, utilities and manufacturers?
First off, wind power stays on the right side of the meter. It’s still owned by the utility and the power it produces is sold to consumers. True, there are large solar plants that fit the same description, but most solar is on your home’s rooftop.
Second, when the wind is blowing, turbines can push a lot of electrons our way. They have more oomph than solar when conditions are propitious, producing more energy for the buck. It is easier to build a wind farm than a large solar array, especially if you’re using CSP (concentrated solar power) for the solar.
Other problems with wind are those they share with solar power–intermittency makes wind impossible to rely on for baseload production of electricity. You have to have another generator primed and ready to take up the slack when the wind stops. That means leaving the spare generator operational, burning fuel and emitting CO2. (Same is true for solar.) As these are frequently cited in climate conversations, I won’t go into that further.
About 75% of lifetime costs of a wind turbine are upfront–construction, installation, siting and transportation. As is the case with solar, the fuel is free.
One way of analyzing the economics of all energy sources including wind is by calculating the ‘Levelized Cost Of Energy’, or LCOE.
The DOE EIA defines that as, “Levelized cost of electricity (LCOE) is often cited as a convenient summary measure of the overall competiveness of different generating technologies. It represents the per-kilowatthour cost (in real dollars) of building and operating a generating plant over an assumed financial life and duty cycle. Key inputs to calculating LCOE include capital costs, fuel costs, fixed and variable operations and maintenance (O&M) costs, financing costs, and an assumed utilization rate for each plant type.3 The importance of the factors varies among the technologies. For technologies such as solar and wind generation that have no fuel costs and relatively small variable O&M costs, LCOE changes in rough proportion to the estimated capital cost of generation capacity. For technologies with significant fuel cost, both fuel cost and overnight cost estimates significantly affect LCOE. The availability of various incentives, including state or federal tax credits, can also impact the calculation of LCOE. As with any projection, there is uncertainty about all of these factors and their values can vary regionally and across time as technologies evolve and fuel prices change.”
Bear in mind the last sentence there. People game LCOE calculations, which is why every time you see them they are different.
That said, here’s what Worldwatch Institute put forth as LCOE in 2013:
Compared to other renewables, wind looks pretty good. The NREL makes the case that wind has never been cheaper:
However, I do trust the EIA numbers a lot more. Here’s what they say LCOE is before subsidy:
Table 1. Estimated Levelized Cost of Electricity (LCOE) for New Generation Resources, 2019
Plant type Total system LCOE
Conventional Coal 95.6
Integrated Coal-Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) 115.9
IGCC with CCS 147.4
Conventional Combined Cycle 66.3
Advanced Combined Cycle 64.4
Advanced CC with CCS 91.3
Conventional Combustion Turbine 128.4
Advanced Combustion Turbine 103.8
Advanced Nuclear 96.1
Solar PV2 130
Solar Thermal 243.1
So if we were doing this all based on LCOE we would start digging for geothermal everywhere.
On land, wind doesn’t look horribly awfully bad. Offshore it seems horrendously expensive.
The other thing to remember is variation in price by geography. In China and India, installed costs run $1,300 per kw. In the U.S. it’s $2,000. So maybe wind makes more sense in the developing world. But it’s still far more expensive than coal, which is why they’re using so much of it.