UT report: Wind, natural gas cheapest electricity if full cost tallied


Highlights

Researchers took environmental and public health impacts into account when calculating costs.

The UT Energy Institute’s online tools let policymakers, others fiddle with their calculations and assumptions.

Wind and natural gas are the lowest-cost options for new electrical generation across much of the nation when environmental and public health impacts are considered along with direct expenses such as fuel and transmission lines, according to a report being released Thursday by the University of Texas.

The white paper, coordinated by UT’s Energy Institute, examined electrical generation involving coal, solar and nuclear power in addition to wind and natural gas on a county-by-county basis in the 48 contiguous states.

“One of the surprising things is that with our full suite of restrictions and assumptions, the cheapest power plant in many counties is nuclear,” Carey King, a research scientist and assistant director of the institute, said in an interview. “That doesn’t tell you that nuclear is low cost,” just that it’s lower than the other technology options in those particular counties.

Wind was the cheapest option for new generation in 1,347 of 3,110 counties, including part of the nation’s midsection, from the Dakotas south into West Texas. Combined-cycle natural gas technology, which uses a gas-fired turbine as well as a steam-powered one, proved cheapest in 1,127 counties, encompassing much of East and Central Texas, including Travis County. Nuclear was cheapest in 398 counties.

Among the factors to which cost was assigned for environmental and public health impacts are air emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and carbon dioxide, King said. Researchers used existing studies to enhance an industry formula known as the levelized cost of electricity to come up with the county-by-county prices for the various types of generation.

“We think our methodology is sound and hope it enhances constructive dialogue,” Joshua Rhodes, a postdoctoral fellow and lead author of the paper, said in a written statement. “But we also know that cost factors change over time, and people disagree about whether to include some of them. We wanted to provide an opportunity for people to change these inputs, and the (online) tools we’ve created allow for that.”

The tools can be used by policymakers and others to fiddle with cost estimates and other factors to inform discussion about new electrical generation.

The report, “New U.S. Power Costs: by County, with Environmental Externalities,” is part of a series of UT white papers examining many aspects of the nation’s power system, including broad topics such as its history and narrower ones such as household energy costs for Texans. Funding for the research came from industrial, nonprofit and governmental organizations, including Austin Energy, the Environmental Defense Fund and ConocoPhillips.



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