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Doubling Down on Failure Installment 1: Comparing the Costs of Wind and Solar, Nuclear, and Coal

As you probably know by now, American Experiment has released a new study entitled Doubling Down on Failure, How a 50 percent by 2030 Renewable Energy Standard Would Cost Minnesota $80.2 Billion.  The study is more than 80 pages, including appendices and citations, so I will be breaking down the key findings in more manageable bites on the website. Today, I’ll break down the four main energy scenarios we chose to examine.

Our study is unique in that it compares the cost of renewables, nuclear, and continuing to use Minnesota’s coal-fired power plants and the associated carbon dioxide emissions with each of the four scenarios.

Renewable scenario. The Renewable scenario calculates the generation mix and cost of enacting a 50 percent renewable energy mandate where electricity is produced primarily by wind and solar. Under this scenario, 79 percent of electricity would come from sources that do not emit carbon dioxide.

Wind would constitute 45 percent of generation, 23 percent would come from existing nuclear power plants, 12 percent would come from combined cycle natural gas (CC), solar would meet 9 percent, combustion turbine natural gas (CT) plants—which are mostly used to meet peak electricity demand—would generate 5 percent of electricity, 2 percent would come from hydro, and “other” would constitute the remaining 3 percent of generation.


Short-Term Nuclear scenario. The Short-Term Nuclear scenario describes how building new nuclear power plants would achieve 77 percent carbon-dioxide-free electricity by 2030, increasing to 80 percent by 2050. Coal-fired power plants would be replaced with nuclear power plants. Existing wind facilities would continue to operate until they reach the end of their 20 year useful lives, and new nuclear plants would be brought online to increase the share of zero-carbon-dioxide electricity on the grid as wind turbines are decommissioned.

Long-Term Nuclear scenario. The Long-Term Nuclear scenario examines the cost and impact on carbon dioxide emissions of gradually replacing existing coal, natural gas, wind, and solar resources with nuclear power plants as they reach the end of their useful lifetimes.

Under the Long-Term Nuclear scenario, 46 percent of electricity generation would be carbon-dioxide-free by 2030, with 33 percent coming from nuclear, 8 percent from wind, 2 percent from solar, and 2 percent from hydroelectric. The remaining electricity generation would be provided by combined cycle natural gas with 27 percent, coal with
22 percent, 2 percent combustion turbine natural gas, and 2 percent “other.”

By 2050, the Long-Term Nuclear scenario would be 80 percent carbon-dioxide-free, with nuclear providing 78 percent of generation, 16 percent would be supplied by combined cycle gas, 1 percent would be supplied by combustion turbine natural gas, 2 percent would be supplied by hydroelectric, and 2 percent would be supplied by “other.”

ACE scenario. The ACE scenario examines the costs of complying with the proposed Affordable Clean Energy rule promulgated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and repealing Minnesota’s renewable energy mandate. ACE was promulgated to replace the Clean Power Plan, which was stayed by the U.S. Supreme Court and never implemented. ACE requires coal-fired power plants to make efficiency improvements that would reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and pollutants such as sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxide, and particulate matter.

Under the ACE scenario, 36 percent of electricity generation would be carbon-dioxide-free by 2030, with 23 percent coming from nuclear, 9 percent from existing wind, 2 percent from solar, and 2 percent from hydroelectric. The remaining electricity generation would be provided by combined cycle natural gas with 18 percent, coal with 42 percent, 1 percent combustion turbine natural gas, and 3 percent “other.”

By 2050, coal would account for 43 percent of power generation, combined cycle natural gas would account for 28 percent, nuclear would account for 23 percent, hydroelectric would account for 2 percent, combustion turbine natural gas would account for 1 percent, and 3 percent would be provided by “other.” Wind and solar would no longer be part of the generation mix because the wind turbines will have reached the end of their 20-year useful lives and the 25-year contracts for Community Solar installations will have expired.

Cost: The graph below shows the additional costs of each scenario we examined, in constant 2019 dollars, compared to 2016 prices.

It probably won’t surprise any of you to learn that the Renewable scenario was by far the most expensive, with the Short-Term Nuclear being the second-most expensive. The Long-Term Nuclear costs far less than either of these scenarios because Minnesota continues to generate affordable energy from coal plants for a longer period of time.

The ACE scenario is different in that it actually saves consumers money relative to 2016 costs.