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Experts Weigh In: Cost of Wind Energy to Keep Going Down, Down, Down

Tina Casey headshotWords by Tina Casey
Leadership & Transparency
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Here's more bad news for fossil fuels: The U.S. Department of Energy just released the results of a global survey of 163 wind energy experts. The verdict: The cost of wind energy will drop between 24 and 30 percent by 2030, from a 2014 baseline. In addition, a total reduction of 35 to 41 percent from the 2014 baseline is possible by 2050.

And that's just the cautious estimate. Costs could go much lower under the right circumstances.

A wind energy problem ... and a solution


The new survey is a collaboration spearheaded by the Energy Department's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Its purpose is to help energy planners determine what role wind energy could play in the global mix, as we transition to a decarbonized economy.

To a large extent that depends on the cost of wind energy, but that is exactly the problem: conventional ways of predicting future costs do not apply to some industries, and the wind industry is one of them.

That's partly because wind technology is still developing rapidly. It does not have the kind of precedent that would enable analysts to make projections based on past performance.

The solution in cases like these is to call upon experts to participate in something called an "expert elicitation survey." As described by Berkeley Lab, a rich body of methodology has been developed to ensure that such surveys accurately reflect the current state of knowledge:

"Expert elicitation is a tool use d to develop estimates of unknown or uncertain quantities based on careful assessment of the knowledge and beliefs of experts about those quantities. It is often considered the best way to develop credible estimates when data are sparse or lacking, or when projections are sought for future conditions that are different from past conditions."

Expert elicitation is becoming more common in the energy field, though according to Berkeley Lab its application to the wind industry has been limited so far.

Yes, the cost of wind energy will go down


One caveat issued by Berkeley Lab is the possibility that respondents may have a bias toward expressing a more optimistic outlook than warranted. Researchers also caution that the experts surveyed expressed a wide range of views. The result is "substantial uncertainty" in the projections.

The lab seems to have accounted for the uncertainty by underscoring the "best guess" results in its press materials, meaning the median results. Here's the money quote from the Berkeley Lab press release:

"... Experts anticipate 24 to 30 percent reductions in the levelized cost of energy by 2030 and 35 to 41 percent reductions by 2050 across the three wind applications studied, relative to 2014 baseline values."

Berkeley Lab also notes that the survey indicates a potential for costs to be much lower than the median:
"Experts predict a 10 percent chance that reductions will be more than 40 percent by 2030 and more than 50 percent by 2050."

According to the experts, two main factors will continue to drive down the cost of wind. One factor has to do with the sharper learning curve that comes with rapid growth in the wind energy market. This factor may also include economies of scale and streamlining in the supply chain.

The other factor is "aggressive" research leading to improvements that lower costs. That can include, for example, the use of more durable and less expensive materials, as well as new technologies that improve wind turbine efficiency.

One interesting result of the survey is the prediction that a continued increase in the size of wind turbines will be a key factor in keeping costs on a downward trend.

The development of offshore wind energy will also play an important role.

You can get all the details on the survey and its methodology from the journal Nature under the title "Expert elicitation survey on future wind energy costs."

Two presidential candidates, two positions on wind energy


Given its prediction of significant future cost reductions, the new Berkeley Lab survey should help support public policies that favor the continued growth of the wind industry.

However, that will depend on who wins the Oval Office this fall.

Republican candidate Donald Trump, for example, is not a fan of renewable energy. In articulating his "America First" energy plan, he argues that there is no room for renewables in U.S. energy policy.

Wind energy has been a particular target for Trump on the campaign trail. He has gone on record multiple times hinting at a conspiracy to cover up the number of birds killed by encounters with wind turbines. Last month, the Associated Press reported this statement by Trump at a rally in Pennsylvania:

“The wind kills all your birds. All your birds, killed. You know, the environmentalists never talk about that,” Trump said.

Hillary Clinton, in contrast, is poised to deploy policymaking tools like the new Berkeley Lab survey to speed up decarbonization. Her "day one" energy plan includes goals for solar power, energy efficiency and alternative fuels.

Clinton has also gone on record calling for an end to oil subsidies. She is not a fan of the Keystone XL pipeline and offshore drilling.

She also favors a continuation of the federal production tax credit for wind energy. Her support for the tax credit -- which has been instrumental in growing the U.S. wind industry -- dates as far back as 2007:

"I will strongly support a renewable portfolio standard, with 25 percent of electricity coming from wind, solar, and other renewable sources by 2025 ... As president, to help us reach 25 percent by 2025, I will make the production tax credit for wind and solar permanent. No more guessing what you're going to get as you move forward with your production.”
Photo (cropped): Composite of two photos illustrating simultaneous harvesting of the wind and switchgrass by Warren Gretz / NREL, NREL End User Content License Agreement.
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this post inaccurately attributed this survey to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). It was updated at 5 p.m. on Sept. 19 to the correct the error. 
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Tina Casey headshotTina Casey

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

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