Study: Solar and Wind Worth Cycling Costs, if Only Cycling Costs Are Considered

A recent study produced by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) finds that if you consider certain factors and exclude others, wind and solar-generated power would be more economical than using fossil fuels as a source for power generation in the West by 2020. The caveat is that the study excludes certain factors.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) report, “Phase 2 of the Western Wind and Solar Integration Study (WWSIS-2),” focuses on the cycling costs for power plants in the West if wind and solar power generation replaced certain percentages of power from coal and gas. 

Cycling is the process of increasing and decreasing production from fossil fuels to accommodate wind and solar contributions — if solar is providing lots of power generation, the utility can ease back on the gas or coal generation, and at night ramp it up again.

There’s been much puffery about the report from sources claiming it proves that wind and solar will save the country billions of dollars in a few years. But it’s important to note cost factors excluded from the study.

“WWSIS-2 does not consider other factors such as capital costs of construction for wind, solar, fossil-fueled power plants, or transmission,” states the government press release announcing the study. “These costs are significant, but outside the scope of this study, which focuses on operations.”

There’s also no mention of the cost of maintenance and upgrades for such young technology.

If you factor in only the costs of cycling power plants up and down, wind and solar are much cheaper than fossil fuels as sources of power generation under certain conditions in certain places in the West — and spew fewer noxious emissions to boot.

In other words, the study doesn’t say that by 2020 wind and solar power will be more economical, fully functional replacements for fossil fuels. But some reports have been making claims to the contrary – Windustry excitedly wrote that “the report concludes that boosting renewable production in the West to 25 percent of energy would save consumers billions of dollars.”

The report specifically leaves significant cost factors out of the equation and concludes no such thing. “The study focused on the wear-and-tear costs and emissions impacts from cycling of fossil-fueled plants,” its authors explain.

Nonetheless, given what the study actually examined, its conclusions are interesting and could be useful in certain situations.

This phase of the ongoing study primarily addressed what adding wind and solar generation to the grid under certain hypothetical scenarios would do to the operation of power plants.

And this is expensive too (Photo Credit: Progress Bangladesh)

And this is expensive too.

Cycling leads to wear-and-tear costs which wouldn’t be there if you just turned on the fossil fuel generation and left the room — but you’d have lower emissions at times, too.

Frequent cycling can cause “premature component failure and increased maintenance and repair,” according to the WWSIS-2 report. “Utilities are concerned that cycling impacts can significantly negate the benefits that wind and solar bring to the system.” They want to know if it will be worth the increased maintenance costs to patch in wind and solar.

Cycling is expensive. “For the average fossil-fueled plant,” the study finds, “cycling costs increase by $0.47 to $1.28 per MWh of fossil-fueled generation,” which the study called a “significant” increase.

And Yes — Wind And Solar Is Worth The Cycling.

“Wind and solar increase cycling costs by $35 million to $157 million per year, or 13 percent to 24 percent, across the Western Interconnection,” the study finds that, assuming 33 percent of wind and solar energy penetration. “Those costs are a small percentage of the displaced fuel costs of $7 billion per year that result from wind and solar.”

There you go. Excluding a bevy of other costs and factors, just substituting wind and solar-generated power for 33 percent of all fossil fuel-generated power could save up to what America spends on ATM fees yearly.

Transmission is a significant cost with wind and solar power. Most solar and wind is generated in remote places — deserts, high windy cliffs, and the like. “Transmission costs are one of the factors affecting the value proposition of some resources,” the IEEE Spectrum blog noted recently. “The cost of moving electricity from wind through Montana’s dense forests to the Pacific Northwest makes it less attractive; Colorado faces similar challenges in moving its own wind resources.”

Photo credit:

Photo credit:

If you live in Nevada, there’s a good chance solar power could work on a utility scale for you. And as Nevada’s close to California, wind power generation “could easily be annexed into the California Independent System Operator Network.”

In sum, all this study demonstrates is that if it ever comes to the point where fears of cycling costs are all that’s standing between solar and wind contributing large chunks of generation to the grid in certain places out West, that we can take that step, confident that the cycling costs can be borne.


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  • Guy Pepin
    October 18, 2013

    Interesting article. I work in a facility which regularly bears cycling costs, and even benefits from it through various government deals/subsidies. The cycling is a natural result of diurnal and weekly changes in electricity demand. Utilities must already bear, and engineer for, many cycles in plant demand, from full on to full off, and everything in between. Certainly having to do it more will increase the wear and tear on all components, but how much? These utilities will all make money, and it will be in their interest to maximize profits. That will continue to be an incentive for innovation and improvements in all parts of their business (components, controls, decision making). A net benefit will accrue for all.

    That said, it is interesting that, no matter how much solar and wind we generate, we will always need an equivalent capacity in traditional sources, which should also include nuclear.

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