Are renewables really as cheap as fracking opponents claim?

Opponents of fracking often say we don't need it because the costs of renewables keep falling. But...

 

We decided to investigate this claim about costs because it's always sounded dodgy. Here's what we've found. 

Hinkley Point C, the new nuclear site in Somerset, will have 3,200 MW of installed capacity that will be able to supply output around 91% of the time (25,509,120 MWh a year) with a build and commissioning cost of £18 billion. It will be able to supply 7% of the nation's entire electricity need quite reliably. 

To supply the equivalent with wind power, with a typical capacity factor of 30%, you'd need to build 9,706 MW of installed capacity. At £1.4 million per MW, based on an IRENA (International Renewable Energy Agency) assessment, that would set you back £13 billion. But because Hinkley Point C will generate for 60 years, and given that wind turbines only last around 20 years, you'd have to replace all the wind turbines twice over an equivalent 60 year horizon, at roughly 65% of the original build cost, so the wind farm equivalent of Hinkley Point C would actually cost the initial £13 billion plus a further £17 billion over 60 years, bringing the total to £30 billion. 

With solar PV, and an average capacity factor of 10%, you'd need to install 29,120 MW of capacity. According to IRENA again, the average cost of thin-film solar PV at utility scale is USD$4.16 per Watt or GBP£3.13 at today's exchange rate. That's GBP£3.1 million per MW, and so the cost of building enough ground-mounted solar PV to rival Hinkley Point C would cost an eye-watering £91 billion. However, that's not the end of the story because the Solar Trade Association says solar panels only last 35 years, and so there would be a need to replace all the modules once in our 60 year horizon - with the modules making up roughly 50% of total installed costs, according to IRENA, that's an extra £45.5 billion bringing the total to £136.5 billion.

So, in a nutshell, you could meet 7% of the UK's entire electricity demand for 60 years with:

Nuclear for £18 billion

Wind for £30 billion 

Solar for £136.5 billion 

Next time someone says "we don't need fracking, the cost of renewables is coming down all the time" ask what measure of cost they're using - because looked at this way, wind and solar look pretty expensive to us. 

When they say renewables are "cheaper" than nuclear, for instance, it is likely that they're referring to the cost of government subsidies. Hinkley Point C will be getting paid £92.50 per MWh when operational versus the current wholesale price of electricity which is about £40 per MWh. The subsidies available for wind and solar are lower than that agreed for Hinkley and so people are able to claim that these two power sources are "less expensive". That's not true, it's just that they earn less in government subsidies. As you can see above, the real, underlying costs are much higher.

We're sharing this not because we want to undermine renewables - they have their place - but to show that opponents of fracking manipulate the numbers when they claim that "fracking is expensive and uneconomic" but that renewables are not. It's sleight-of-hand, don't fall for it.


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