Scientists predict massive drop in wind energy costs

Source: Christa Marshall, E&E reporter • Posted: Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The costs of producing electricity from wind could plunge as much as 40 percent by midcentury, according to a new study from federal and university scientists.

Researchers considered land-based wind, as well as offshore wind and floating wind farms, and surveyed 163 global wind experts. They concluded that costs would fall roughly 24 to 30 percent by 2030 in comparison to 2014 levels under a “best guess” scenario and between 35 to 41 percent by midcentury.

“This study demonstrates that, notwithstanding the growing maturity of wind technology, there are plenty of places to look to squeeze costs even further — and it’s not just about reducing capital costs,” said Ryan Wiser, a senior scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and co-author of the study. “These cost reductions for onshore wind, if achieved, will help keep wind energy cost competitive with other energy sources even in face of reduced federal tax support.”

Expected larger turbines that produce more electricity per unit are a chief reason for the projections, as are expected increased durability of components, lower capital costs, innovations in foundation design and reduced financing costs due to presumed market maturity, said Wiser. The study projects, for example, that the height of average fixed-bottom offshore wind turbines could reach 11 megawatts by 2030. Researchers from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory; University of Massachusetts, Amherst; and International Energy Agency also contributed to the analysis, which was published in Nature Energy.

It’s possible future cost declines could be more dramatic if there is aggressive investment in research. The surveyed experts — which included representatives from the federal government, universities and companies — said there was a 10 percent chance that costs could fall more than 40 percent by 2030.

There also could be smaller cost declines, as there is “substantial uncertainty” in the projections because of market dynamics, the researchers said. The cost reductions also are generally larger than those found in other studies. That is partly because other studies mainly focused on the up-front costs of wind, rather than the full range of cost factors, according to the paper.

The researchers acknowledge that surveying wind experts has “weaknesses,” as it’s impossible to eliminate personal biases entirely. Experts, however, also can underestimate the impact of changing technology, the paper says. The study is the “largest known elicitation performed on an energy technology,” it adds.

Generally, onshore wind is expected to remain cheaper than offshore wind, although costs of the latter is projected to fall much more in absolute terms. There’s expected to be a narrower gap in the future between the costs of offshore wind farms with fixed foundations and floating turbine projects. Last week, the Department of Energy released a strategy to boost U.S. offshore wind deployment (Greenwire, Sept. 9).

“Though expert surveys are not without weaknesses, these results can inform policy discussions, R&D decisions and industry strategy development,” Wiser said.