Here’s some of the best news we’ve seen recently: relative cost is no longer an obstacle in developing renewable sources of electrical energy. Carl J. Weinberg and Robert H. Williams report a sharp drop in the cost of wind and solar thermal power over the past few years ("Energy from the Sun," Scientific American, September 1990). They project a similar drop in price of photovoltaic electrical generation in the near future. (See figure below.)
The data show wind power is already competitive with the cost of power from a new coal-fired plant at about 5c per kilowatt hour. Even solar thermal is now cheaper (11c per kwhr) than power from a new natural gas plant (13c per kwhr).
For the same 5c per kwhr or less, we can reduce current energy use by 30 to 70% through conservation measures (Arnold P. Fickett, Clark W. Gellings, and Amory B. Lovins, "Efficient Use of Electricity," Scientific American, September 1990. In fact, Amory Lovins reports in the Rocky Mountain Institute Newsletter (Fall/Winter 1990) that the US alone could save $200 billion a year through currently available conservation technologies. That’s almost enough to balance the US federal budget!
These authors have years of experience in energy research and policy, and they represent utilities, an energy policy center, and academia. They don’t always agree about the best strategies to follow, or the most likely estimate of future costs, but they do agree that a sustainable energy future must include conservation and renewables.
It’s been apparent all along that conservation and use of renewable sources of energy makes good environmental sense: we can abate the greenhouse effect and reduce acid rain significantly by sharply reducing our use of fossil fuels. We’ve also known that reduced dependence on petroleum would ease much of the international tension we’ve been experiencing. Now we’re able to say that it makes good economic sense, too – even in conventional economic terms.
That’s a win-win-win strategy in our book. Next time somebody tries to tell you that conservation and rerenewables won’t work because they are too expensive or involve too great a sacrifice, let them know that’s no longer true.
Energy Costs for Selected Sources. Actual costs shown as solid lines, projected costs as broken lines. Costs for coal and natural gas are for new plants. (Adapted from "Energy from the Sun," by Carl J. Weinberg and Robert H. Williams. © September 1990 by Scientific American, Inc. All rights reserved.)