Video misleads on solar, wind energy backup costs

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A video clip from testimony before a US congressional committee features claims that solar and wind power drives up the price of electricity due to the cost of installing backup energy sources. This is misleading; experts told AFP data shows no clear link between prices paid by consumers and the share of renewables in the electric grid, and the cost of backups can be mitigated.

"Solar and wind are unreliable, intermittent sources of electricity… they can go to near zero at any given time, which is why they need near-100 percent backups," fossil fuels advocate Alex Epstein says in a video posted April 26, 2023 on Instagram, TikTok and Twitter.

"So when you have solar and wind, you can't just look at the price of the panels and the wind turbines, you have to look at the price of the backup," he told the Republican-chaired House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Accountability during a hearing focused on use of the country's Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

"And this is why in California where I live, in Germany and Denmark, you see skyrocketing electricity prices the more solar and wind you use. So they don't replace costs on the grid, they add costs to the grid," he claimed.

Screenshot of an Instagram post taken May 2, 2023

Epstein is the director of the Center for Industrial Progress, a communications consultancy for industries including energy and mining. He has published books including "The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels" and "Fossil Fuels Improve the Planet".

Experts consulted by AFP rejected the idea that adding renewable sources to a grid is directly tied to price increases.

"First, there is no clear relationship between the amount of solar and wind energy used in a country, and electricity prices," said Anthony Patt, professor of climate policy at the Swiss research university ETH Zurich.

"Second, solar and wind do replace other costs on the grid, if the overall system is designed well, with a balance of sources and adequate power transmission capacity."

In the United States, for example, federal data shows that the big states of California (archive) and Texas (archive) each have a relatively high share of solar and wind power – but while California's electricity prices are among the highest in the country, costs in Texas are among the lowest.

In Europe, data from the International Energy Agency (archive) shows that Germany has a similarly high share of wind and solar power in the electricity grid as Spain, but the latter has far lower electricity spot market prices (archive).

In terms of residential electricity bills, Patt indicated there was overall "no clear relationship" in Europe between household prices and the share of wind and solar in the electricity mix. He based this on an analysis of European Union official price data (archive) and electricity data from the energy think tank Ember (archive).

'Backup' for renewable energy

Epstein's statement about the "backup" needed when the sun or wind goes down is misleading, other experts said.

"Renewable energy does not need 100 percent backup. That's factually wrong," said Sugandha Srivastav, a lecturer in environmental economics at Oxford University.

One backup solution is storage batteries. The International Renewable Energy Agency says the costs of these are falling sharply (archive).

Wind turbines are seen after the sunrise in Flavin, southwestern France on April 7, 2023 ( AFP / Charly TRIBALLEAU)

"Technologies like batteries that can help with the intermittency issue are becoming very cheap," said Srivastav. "You can also deal with intermittency through demand side management -- giving users an incentive to change when they use electricity to better match supply -- and trading across grids."

Tim Green, an engineering professor focussing on zero-carbon electricity at Imperial College, London, called the claims in the video "nonsense."

He said: "The amount of 'backup' required depends on the system characteristics as a whole, including amount and type of renewables, and the risk profile one is prepared to accept. This always gives a lower volume of backup than the rather silly idea that every wind farm and solar farm needs its own dedicated backup."

Variable costs

A study published in Nature Energy (archive) examined the costs associated with integrating "variable renewable energy" such as solar and wind.

"At low and intermediate shares of electricity supply, variable renewables may well offer the lowest-cost low-carbon option in many countries as system integration costs are often modest," the Nature Energy study's authors wrote.

"The more limited evidence relating to very high variable renewable shares suggests that overall integration costs can be kept relatively low, but that this requires the development of very flexible electricity systems."

Change in electricity prices of different types of energy, from 2009 to 2019 (latest available data), according to a report by the World Trade Organisation ( AFP / Kenan AUGEARD, Jonathan WALTER)

Charts published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (archive) show that unit energy costs for power from solar and wind installations have declined in recent years as their use has soared.

Whether the integration costs rise or fall varies from one form of energy to another. Data in a 2022 IEA report indicates that the cost of integrating solar electricity technology in three major regions is forecast to rise by 2050; for onshore wind, it is expected to rise in some regions and fall in others, while for offshore wind it is forecast to fall sharply.

These figures do not factor in the price of storage batteries used as backups.

Jan Rosenow, director of the Regulatory Assistance Project (RAP), a clean energy NGO, acknowledged that higher proportions of renewable energy use may push up costs but that these can be mitigated with “demand side” measures.

He noted in a Twitter thread (archive) that "for very high shares of RES (renewable energy sources), costs will get increasingly higher."

The RAP has published proposals for ways to reduce energy costs by giving households incentives to be flexible in how and when they use energy (archive).

War drives up energy bills

Renewable energy is growing as countries scramble to meet emissions targets to curb climate change and secure alternative power sources after natural gas exporter Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Germany's high energy prices have been attributed to the impact on gas prices from the war in Ukraine.

Experts told AFP for an analysis in October 2022 (archive) that the invasion and post-Covid rebound, not clean energy policies, were major drivers of the recent surge in energy prices.

Research indicates meanwhile that solar and wind are becoming competitive compared to fossil fuel energy sources.

"The disadvantage of fossil fuels is that they are very expensive to switch off and keep running at night, even when demand is low," said Srivastav. "Let's not pretend like fossil fuels have zero system costs."

Charts showing the decline in solar panels prices in the United States in the decade to 2020 and world production of solar panels by country ( AFP / Jonathan WALTER, Anibal MAIZ CACERES)

While some wind projects require government subsidies that are blamed for rising energy bills, the authors of one analysis led by Imperial College London (archive) found that certain offshore wind farms produce energy so cheaply that they pay money back to the government.

AFP has fact-checked other false and misleading claims about energy and climate change here.