Electricity Generation Costs from Solar, Wind Continue to Fall

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The cost of generating one megawatt-hour (MWh) of electricity at a utility scale wind-generation plant costs between $30 and $80. At a utility scale solar farm the cost ranges from $43 to $48 per MWh for one type of photovoltaic cell and from $46 to $53 for a second type of solar cell. Generating a megawatt-hour of electricity at a U.S. coal-fired plant costs between $60 and $143 per MWh, including 90% carbon capture.

The data were released Thursday by Lazard, a financial advisory and asset management firm. The figures reflect the “levelized cost of energy” (LCOE) which is defined as the all-in cost including building the plant, supplying it with fuel, running it, and maintaining it. The cost per megawatt-hour of alternative fuel generation does not include U.S. federal tax subsidies. Adding in investment tax credits and production tax credits lowers both ends of the range by around $8 to $10 per MWh.

The most expensive form of power generation using non-fossil fuels is rooftop solar, with a low-end price of $187 per MWh. Of that cost, $174 is the cost of panels and installation and $13 is the fixed operating and maintenance (O&M) cost. There is no cost for fuel (sunshine is still free). At $30 per MWh, wind’s costs include $24 in capital costs and $6 in fixed O&M. Like sunshine, wind is still free.

The $43 MWh-cost for utility scale solar generation reflects $39 in capital costs and $4 in fixed O&M costs.

Among the fossil-fueled generation plants, the low-end cost of $60 for a MWh of coal-fired generation breaks down to $41 in capital costs, $5 in fixed O&M, $2 in variable O&M, and $13 in fuel costs. A natural gas-fired combined cycle power plant generates one MWh for $42 which includes capital costs of $16, fixed O&M of $1, variable O&M of $4, and fuel costs of $21.

Adding a levelized cost for storing electricity at wind and solar plants drives the cost of these forms of generation much higher. For example, lithium-ion battery storage adds $269 per MWh to the cost of a utility scale wind or solar farm used for non-peak power distribution. The same storage technology used to meet peak demand adds $282 per MWh to the cost. These same costs do not exist for fossil-fuel powered plants.

Therein lies the nub of Lazard’s conclusion:

Importantly, while energy storage could one day fundamentally change the way the U.S. and global power grids operate, Alternative Energy generation technologies, which remain intermittent despite significantly decreased costs, must for now be deployed as one element of a diversified generation fleet capable of meeting the needs of an advanced economy.

Lazard noted that capital costs for lithium-ion storage is expected to decline by up to 36% over the next five years.

The Lazard report is available here and an executive summary is available here. The storage portion of the report is available here.