NREL Shows 20 Percent Wind by 2024 Is Possible, but it Ignores the Economics of Competing Technologies Wind

Posted March 4, 2010 | folder icon Print this page

In January, the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) completed a two-and-a-half year study[i] of the technical, operational, and economic requirements for integrating 20 to 30 percent wind power into the electrical grid that serves more than 70 percent of the U.S. population. The portion of the U.S. covered in this study is the Eastern Interconnection, extending from the Western borders of the Plains States to the Atlantic Coast, but excluding most of Texas.  Much of the wind capacity that would be built in this interconnection would be in the Great Plains area because of the higher quality winds there, which would produce capacity factors about 7 to 9 percent higher than onshore wind resources near urban centers in the east. The study found that this level of wind power is definitely possible, but more transmission lines would have to be constructed and the cost would need to be borne by consumers or taxpayers, even though cheaper alternatives for electricity generation are available to the American public.

The NREL Study Approach

NREL and wind turbine

The NREL study considered four scenarios, three at the 20 percent level of wind generation, and one at the 30 percent level, the scenarios being differentiated by the number of onshore versus offshore wind turbines that would be built. The 20 percent scenario requires about 225,000 megawatts of additional wind capacity and the 30 percent scenario about 335,000 megawatts. That’s 9 to 13 times greater than the wind capacity that existed at the end of 2008. And it would require that 16,000 to 24,000 megawatts to be constructed each and every year. By comparison, the largest amount of wind capacity actually constructed in a year was slightly less than 10,000 megawatts, in 2009. [ii] Because wind generation is intermittent, the capacity of the new wind units needs to be above the target generation level. The offshore component would represent 0 to 28 percent of the required generating capacity, depending on the scenario. Offshore units are more expensive to build than the onshore units, but fewer transmission upgrades may be needed.

According to the study, this level of wind power is technically feasible, but to handle it the transmission system would need upgrades, including 17,050 to 22,697 miles of new high-tech lines, depending on the scenario, and over one hundred billion dollars in capital investments ($101 to $145 billion). The study determined that the cost of integrating intermittent wind power into the Eastern grid, in the 20 percent scenarios, would be $5 per megawatt-hour,[iii] or about 0.5 cents per kilowatt-hour of electricity (in 2009 dollars).[iv] The integration costs are the incremental costs incurred during operation that can be attributed to the variability and uncertainty introduced by wind generation. This cost is in addition to the costs of constructing the wind turbines and generating the wind power. The study also assumes that a large-scale consolidation of grid control organizations would need to occur in order to permit the sharing of wind power across the vast eastern grid, which could be a very large challenge.[v]

The study also noted that it would be imperative to upgrade the transmission grid before building the wind capacity because it takes longer to upgrade the grid than it does to build new wind capacity. Also, the authors point out that without the grid enhancements, there would be curtailment or shutting down of wind units. China has already found this out—their grid cannot handle 30 percent of the wind units they have constructed.[vi]

NREL admits that wind cannot be a capacity resource. And because our electricity system is dependent on capacity value—meaning that electricity can be obtained on demand and controlled as needed—wind power must have back-up power to provide that dedicated capacity. That issue alone limits wind’s usefulness.[vii] Texas, the state with the largest wind capacity (at 9,400 megawatts), provides exemptions to wind-turbine owners when their turbines do not deliver power as promised because the wind isn’t blowing. By contrast, when the owners of coal, nuclear, or gas-fired plants cannot deliver power owing to an operational or maintenance problem, they must pay for whatever back-up power is needed. The cost of backing-up wind power companies is thus paid for by all generators.[viii]

Among the report’s conclusions is this: The reductions in spending on fossil fuels that will come from replacing coal-fired electricity with wind-generated power would offset the costs of additional transmission.  But the report neglects to mention that it is more economic to construct and operate coal-fired plants than wind plants.  Let’s compare the findings of the NREL study to other studies and experience.

How Does NREL Compare With Other Studies and Reports?

One prominent progressive activist[ix] claimed that we are well on our way to meeting the target because the Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration (EIA)[x] projects in their revised Annual Energy Outlook 2009[xi] that wind will be 5 percent of U.S. electricity in 2012 and that all renewable power would reach 14 percent. That forecast assumes the renewable incentives in the federal stimulus package, as well as the renewable electricity standards now operative in more than half of all U.S. states, which mandate that a certain percentage of future generation be produced from renewable energy. But the activist failed to provide EIA’s forecast for later years, which shows that wind does not remain the most economic option once better wind resources (lower-cost sites) are used up, and the subsidies provided by the stimulus are no longer available. In 2024, EIA forecasts wind to be only 2 percent higher than it is expected to be in 2012, and to represent only 4 percent of electricity generation, which is 1 percentage point less than its share in 2012. Biomass generation, a base-load technology, is expected to increase from 1 percent of generation in 2012 to 4 percent in 2024, with all renewable power increasing from 14 to 16 percent of total generation between 2012 and 2024.[xii]

EIA’s analyses, even when they include a cap-and-trade policy or a national renewable electricity standard (RES), show other clean technologies to be more economic than wind power once the lower-cost wind sites are exhausted and the subsidies expire, particularly given that significant new transmission will be needed to accommodate more remote wind resources. For example, following a request from Chairman Edward Markey of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, EIA analyzed a 25 percent RES in 2025 that was based on the proposal in the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009.[xiii] EIA considered two scenarios that depended on the amount of energy-efficiency credits available, one at the maximum level and one with no efficiency credits. In one scenario, wind in 2025 did not increase from reference case levels. In the other scenario, the increase in wind generation was 20 percent, increasing from a 4 percent to a 5 percent level of total generation. However, biomass generation increased either 82 percent or 134 percent from reference case levels. Having represented 4 percent of total generation in the reference case in 2025, biomass generation increased its share to either 7 percent or 10 percent of generation, depending on the case considered by EIA. (The larger share is in the no efficiency credit scenario.)

Based on another analysis at the request of Chairmen Waxman and Markey, EIA examined the proposed cap-and-trade provisions in the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009, along with its other provisions.[xiv] While many cases are analyzed, the basic case has renewable generation increasing from 16 percent in the reference case to 20 percent in the basic case in 2025, and nuclear generation increasing from 18 percent in the reference case to 25 percent in the basic case, a larger share increase. Both wind and biomass have a 4 percent share of the generation market in 2025 in the reference case, with biomass generation doubling its share to 8 percent in the basic case and wind increasing by only 1 percentage point to 5 percent. Since biomass and nuclear are base-load technologies, they generate more electricity from an equal amount of capacity than does wind power, which is an intermittent technology, generating electricity only when the wind blows.

Another advantage that biomass and nuclear technologies have over wind is their cost. Generation costs in 2016, according to the EIA, are $119 per megawatt-hour for nuclear (in 2008 dollars), $149.3 for onshore wind, $191.1 for offshore wind, and $111 for biomass.[xv] Thus, on an economic basis, it is no wonder that biomass and nuclear are expected to penetrate the market more than wind when the latter’s costs increase owing to more remote and difficult-to-construct sites. While the NREL study indicates that the savings from coal could pay for the increase in wind-transmission costs, it fails to report that conventional coal and integrated coal gasification technology are some of the cheapest technologies for generating electricity. According to EIA, their generation costs in 2016 (assuming the equivalent of a $15 per ton carbon dioxide emissions fee) are $100.4 per megawatt-hour and $110.5 per megawatt-hour respectively, obviously lower than the costs of the “clean” technologies.

Other studies have found similar results, including studies by the National Association of Manufacturers and the American Council for Capital Formation,[xvi] the Charles River Associates,[xvii] the Environmental Protection Agency,[xviii] and the Congressional Budget Office.[xix]

Another study analyzing transmission requirements was done recently for New England.[xx] The study identified a potential for up to 12,000 megawatts—a 75-fold increase from current wind capacity—with 7,500 megawatts onshore and 4,500 megawatts offshore. In order to meet the 12,000 megawatts of wind potential, the study anticipates 4,320 new miles of transmission with costs between $19 and $25 billion. A more modest scenario of 4,000 megawatts of on- and offshore wind was estimated to need 3,615 miles of new transmission, ranging in cost from $11 to $14 billion.[xxi] These results seem to imply that the transmission estimates from the NREL study may be low, as regards both the amount of transmission capacity needed and the associated cost of integrating massive amounts of wind capacity into the eastern interconnection.

Experience with Wind Energy Overseas

Denmark has succeeded in attaining about 20 percent of its generation from wind power, but that level of wind has not helped the local consumers that subsidized its construction. Because wind tends to blow more in the night when demand is lower and because Denmark has no way of storing the excess wind power, Denmark exports it to Norway, Sweden, and Germany.  Norway, which gets 98 percent of its electricity from hydropower,[xxii] is able to handle the excess wind because of its hydroelectric power, which acts like a huge battery for the wind power. [xxiii]

Germany, with about 5 percent of its generation from wind must often curtail its wind energy to protect its grid. More wind would require more conventional generation to back up the wind capacity—between 80 and 90 percent of the installed wind capacity.[xxiv]

Noise pollution from wind power has been reported in England, France, and New Zealand. In New Zealand, more than 750 complaints have been lodged against a large wind project near Makara since it began operating last April, with residents complaining about noise and vibration affecting their sleep. Anti-wind groups have sprung up here and abroad. The European Platform Against Windfarms lists 388 groups in 20 European countries.[xxv]


This NREL study is the second in a series that considers obtaining 20 percent of electricity generation from wind. The first study, released in the summer of 2008, looked at the feasibility of 20-percent wind power by 2030.[xxvi] While EIA’s projections have not changed during this time frame, the federal government continues to pour money into studies to promote wind technology and continues to subsidize it.[xxvii] EIA’s and others’ studies have shown that subsidized wind is not an economic choice, once the better wind resources are exhausted, and could at best provide 5 percent of generation by 2025 even with an RES or a cap-and-trade proposal.

NREL may be right that the necessary upgrade to the transmission grid is technically feasible, but the real issue is whether it would provide any benefit, given the other issues surrounding wind generation. These include wind power’s inability to provide capacity value and thus its need for other capacity to serve as back up; an intermittency that provides electricity out of sync with high-demand periods; noise pollution, which requires that wind power be located in remote areas away from consumers; the high subsidization of wind power compared to competing technologies; and its inability to be stored, which results in potential operational problems with the transmission grid. In short, while it may be possible to get 20 percent of our electricity from wind, we have to ask, “Is it worth the costs?”

[i]NREL News Release,


[iii] The National Renewable Energy laboratory, Eastern Wind Integration and Transmission Study, January 2010,

[iv] Climate Wire reported the cost of achieving the 20-percent scenarios to be less than 2 cents per kilowatt-hour, but the author of this blog could not find that number in the NREL report. The NREL report converted the $5 per megawatt-hour, and got .005 cents per kilowatt-hour, which the author of this blog finds a conversion error.

[v] Climate Wire, TRANSMISSION: 20 percent wind power by 2024 possible but ‘challenging’ – study, January 21, 2010,

[vi] The Wall Street Journal, “China’s Wind Farms Come with a Catch: Coal Plants”, September 28, 2009,


[viii] The Wall Street Journal, Natural Gas Tilts at Windmills in Power Feud, March 2, 2010, modities_LeadStory


[x] The Energy Information Administration is an independent agency within the U.S. Department of Energy.

[xi] Energy Information Administration, An Updated Annual Energy Outlook 2009 Reference Case Reflecting Provisions of the American recovery and reinvestment Act and Recent Changes in the Economic Outlook, April 2009,

[xii] Ibid., Tables 8 and 16.

[xiii] Energy Information Administration, Impacts of a 25-Percent Renewable Electricity Standard as Proposed in the American Clean Energy and Security Act, April 2009,

[xiv] Energy information Administration, Energy market and Economic Impacts of H.R. 2454, the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009, August of 2009.

[xv] Energy Information Administration, 2016 Levelized Cost of New Generation Resources from the Annual Energy Outlook 2010, January 12, 2010,


[xvii] The Charles River Associates, Inc., the Economic Impact of the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009, act-of-2009.pdf



[xx] New England 2030 Power System Study, February 2010,

[xxi] Industrial Wind Action Group, The Economics of transmission in New England,

[xxii]International Energy Agency, Electricity/Heat in Norway in 2006,



[xxv] The Wall Street Journal, The Brewing Tempest Over Wind Power, March 2, 2010, ews_wsj

[xxvi] U.S. Department of Energy, Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, “20% Wind Energy by 2030”, July 2008,

[xxvii] Wind power gets a production tax credit of 2.1 cents per kilowatt hour for the first 10 years of operation for units constructed through 2012.

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