Experts duke it out over the cost of windpower

By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

In case you read an article in  The Economist about how nuclear power and the most advanced type of natural gas generation would be the most affordable ways to replace coal-fired power plants — more affordable than wind and solar power — you need to know that the reply on behalf of wind rushed in quickly.

Writing in Forbes (take that venerable Economist!), Amory Lovins, founder of the clean-energy advocating Rocky Mountain Institute, says The Economist’s analysis, in sum, blows.

Lovins’ response to the article by Charles R. Frank Jr., a non-resident senior economist with the Brookings Institute (see Frank’s blog in case you cannot access The Economist piece), is  measured and polite, but unequivocal: The Economist article is based on old or erroneous data and deeply flawed.

Lovins and colleague Titiaan Palazzi reworked The Economist’s model, using accurate and current data to produce a counter analysis.

The Lovins/Palazzi model found that the far from being the most affordable ways to generate energy to displace dirty coal-fired plants, nuclear and natural gas-fired plants were the most expensive; and they weren’t even factoring in the cost of carbon pollution.

Hydropower and wind power were most cost-effective energy generators, Lovins writes.

“Instead of gas combined-cycle and nuclear plants' offering the greatest net benefit from displacing coal plants, followed by hydro, wind, and last of all solar, the ranks reversed [in the Lovins/Palazzi analysis]. The new, correct, story: first hydro (on his purely economic assumptions), then wind, solar, gas, and last of all nuclear—still omitting efficiency, which beats them all,” Lovins explains in the Forbes column.

Why buy Lovins’ analysis over Frank’s? Both of these think tank men have impressive resumes. Frank (Phd, Princeton) has worked at the State Department, GE Capital and at Salomon Brothers (long before the latest financial meltdown). Lovins, a physicist, did not finish at Oxford but has 10 honorary doctorates, a shelf of books he’s authored and founded the influential Rocky Mountain Institute.

Perhaps more importantly, Lovins, has spent his entire career, starting in the 1970s, assessing energy options, evaluating sustainable alternatives and crafting energy policy.

You can download the full RMI response analysis here.

This isn’t the first time experts have sparred over the costs and benefits of energy options, and it does raise a question about where the politics of their respective institutions.

The Rocky Mountain Institute champions green energy because it fits its mission of  driving “the efficient and restorative use of resources.” You can read more about its goals here.

The Brookings Institution, variously described as liberal, centrist or conservative, is among the most powerful independent think tanks in the world.

Both non-profits employ scientists and academics and aim to shape policy. They are supported by philanthropists, businesses and other donors.





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