MAIL: Nothing is Free

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Reading the articles “Cruising with Renewables” (HP152) and “EVs Don’t Cost Much to Run” (HP153) brings me to some reflections about this difficult matter of energy and its associated costs. And it’s true: The math is tricky—quite tricky.

Any form of energy has its price, but both articles suggest that these particular end users pay little or even nothing. From the natural way of seeing life, how can we be entitled to something for nothing? Let’s look at some more details.

  • Coal: According to the U.S. Department of Energy and a report published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, the levelized cost of coal is $0.28 per kWh. This includes fuel cost, operation and maintenance costs, and externalities such as subsidies, environmental cleanup, and air and water pollution. What we pay on our utility bill is just a fraction of this.
  • Nuclear: This technology has hit taxpayers for more than $150 billion (more than the Vietnam War and the U.S. space program combined).
  • Gas: It burns cleaner that coal and we’re discovering new ways to extract and burn it, but to an extent, we’ll end up with the same social consequences as we have from extracting coal.
  • Solar: For big solar plants, land disturbance is a reality, since large arrays interfere with the flora and fauna’s life cycles, and change erosion and drainage. Something that is not really taken seriously—the reflection of the sun from the system—can harm the aerial traffic. Reflecting the sun’s light back into the atmosphere has unknown consequences. We also are just beginning to recycle old solar panels responsibly.
  • Wind: This seems to be the technology with the fewest side effects of all, and brings no health consequences, national security, nor environmental effects that nonrenewables so abundantly present.
  • Subsidies: One study showed that, from 1989 to 2009, oil and gas industries received almost $5 billion per year. Nuclear energy received about $3.5 billion per year; biofuels, $1 billion; and renewables, about $300 million (“What Would Jefferson Do? The Historical Role of Federal Subsidies in Shaping America’s Energy Future;” bit.ly/HistSubsidies).

The final question still remains: How much does a kWh really cost? If it is free for me, someone is surely paying for it in many forms and ways.

Uwe Frischknecht • via email

Comments (3)

BlindSquirl's picture

I have to take exception to your claim that wind "brings no health consequences" as there have been claims made by people living near the highly subsidized wind farms of adverse effects (both human and livestock) due to low frequency vibrations.

As to the "nor environmental effects" statement, I'll point out the ever increasing incidence of bird strikes and bat deaths due to collapsed lungs induced by the vacuum created by the trailing edges of wind rotor blades.

I'm all for RE but an honest evaluation requires honest investigation.

Ian Woofenden's picture

There is a small number of people who do seem to have sensitivity to utility-scale wind turbines. Your word "claim" is apropos -- I'm not aware of a body of evidence that this is a serious or widespread issue.

Bird and bat death from wind turbines pales compared to environmental damage from non-renewables, and "ever increasing incidence" doesn't sound like a studied conclusion.

I'm right with you on honest investigation, and it needs to be applied to all technologies and ALL of their subsidies, externalities, costs, and impacts. An honest study will find that renewables -- no cost fuel recurring daily and minor impacts -- stand up very well indeed to dirty conventional energy sources. Non-renewables are "cheap" because we aren't really looking at the cost/impact picture honestly. It is easy to make something cheap if you don't have to pay the full cost and don't have to clean up after yourself.

Ian Woofenden, Home Power senior editor

Michael Welch's picture

Hi BlindSquirl. It makes those statements relative to conventional technologies when it says " that nonrenewables so abundantly present."

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