Wind Energy Will See More Tech Breakthroughs, Falling Costs, Experts Predict
Researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory conducted the largest-ever survey of experts on energy last year, asking them to predict whether wind energy would continue to get cheaper toward 2030 and beyond.
When they plotted the 163 expert predictions against traditional analyses, they discovered the experts are more optimistic than their analyses.
“Our experts are somewhat more optimistic about future cost reduction potential than much of the existing literature,” LBL Senior Scientist Ryan Wiser said in Chicago last week. “That suggests our experts are not simply basing their estimates on the existing literature, but are bringing some new information—hopefully insightful information—to the table.”
The survey also collected opinions from a smaller group of 22 “leading experts.” These top researchers and technologists are the people who developed the wind industry over the last 20 to 30 years, Wiser said, and they proved even more optimistic than the larger group.
Their optimism may derive from technological advancements that have yet to be implemented, suggesting that wind energy is not as mature a technology as its slowly evolving turbines make it appear. Immature technologies, as solar energy has demonstrated, tend to enjoy steeper drops in cost.
“That was the question we were trying to get at with this expert survey,” Wiser said. “Is this a mature technology where only somewhat modest incremental improvements are plausible? Or instead do there remain significant opportunities for cost reduction?
“Onshore wind technology is fairly mature,” Wiser concluded, but the survey suggests that “further advancements are on the horizon—and not only in reduced up-front costs. Experts anticipate a wide range of advancements that will increase project performance, extend project design lives, and lower operational expenses. Offshore wind has even greater opportunities for cost reduction, though there are larger uncertainties in the degree of that reduction.”
In the median, the experts predicted on-shore wind energy would see cost reductions of about 35 percent by 2050. The cost of offshore wind would drop 38 percent to 41 percent, they predicted.
Cost reductions matter because wind faces stiff competition from natural gas, and that competition will stiffen further when wind loses its federal production tax credit over the next four years. But even without subsidy, Lazard estimates the cost of wind starts at 3.2¢ per kilowatt hour, making it the cheapest form of energy in America today.
Instead of asking the experts to predict that cost in the future, Wiser’s team asked them to predict each of the five elements that determine cost: up-front installation cost, capacity factor, design life, cost of financing, and operating expense.