Somebody's Backyard - Coal Fired Power Plant and Wind Turbines
Following up on my post Blow Wind Blow, where we took a look at the revenue side of the wind business, this week we take a look at the cost aspects of running a wind farm. One pleasing aspect of the wind business is that there are a lot of organizations promoting wind energy and, as a result, there is a lot of information available about wind and the costs associated with wind projects. The challenge is shifting through this information and pulling out the data relevant to New Hampshire wind projects. I have found the information from the American Wind Energy Association, AWEA, and particularly that from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, NREL, to be particularly useful.
Another challenge associated with working through the wind cost data is that wind project financing is a complicated business. There is equity and debt financing, there are investors who contribute simply to access the tax credits and there are funding and repayment mechanisms that change part way through the life of the project. All of these different mechanisms are used raise funds from different groups of investors and to accelerate returns to the original core group of investors. Wind project financing gets rather involved and it can change considerably on a project-to-project basis, making comparisons difficult. To simplify our analysis, I have found the best basis of comparison, across different wind projects and renewable energy technologies, is to determine the levelized cost of energy, LCOE.
The LCOE is a way of calculating the aggregate costs for an energy project and takes into account the overall capital investment in the project as well as the annual operating and maintenance costs over the life of the project. Using the time value of money, all future costs are discounted, using a minimum desired return, to the present and are then divided by the discounted total of energy produced from the project to provide a single number that is indicative of the all-in cost of electricity from the project. Normally on any energy project, the LCOE is the first calculation performed as it is relatively easy to do. As the project development progresses, the calculations become more involved and sophisticated as different funding mechanisms are considered. Sometimes LCOE calculations include taxes and incentives but I have taken those into account in my revenue calculations in my last post so I have not included them in my calculations. I refer you to this NREL source should you want to learn more about calculating LCOE.
Wind projects take a long time to get off the ground. There are years of wind monitoring for a selected site, environmental impact studies, navigating local property tax payments and overcoming local opposition and legal hurdles. In addition, power purchase agreements and transmission line access have to be negotiated. This can sometimes take three to four years and a great deal of investment before ground is broken on a project. Even with years of upfront work, success in not guaranteed, as the NH Site Evaluation Committee recent rejection of the Antrim, NH, wind project has demonstrated.
Once all the approvals are obtained then the major expenditures in site preparation, road construction, foundations, turbines, turbine installation and transmissions lines are incurred. The wind business is a capital-intensive business and the installed costs of new wind turbines range from $2 million to $2.5 million per megawatt. Based on published investment costs for the NH wind projects, the costs in NH are of the order of $2.5 million/MW (see table below), most likely due to the local permitting challenges and installing the turbines high up on ridge lines. As a comparison, establishing a gas-fired combined cycle plant costs about $800,000 per megawatt – one third of the cost of a wind energy operation.
The other important costs are the annual operating and maintenance costs associated with wind operations. Unlike the gas-fired power plants, the good thing about wind projects is that there no fuel costs. Operating costs for wind energy operations include fixed annual costs, like land lease costs, state and local property tax assessments, maintenance contracts, the operating staffing associated with the wind farm as well as other general administrative costs like insurance. Variable costs include the costs of electricity to power the operation as well as unanticipated maintenance costs which tend to increase over the life time of the operation. Exact costs for all costs components vary from project to project and tend not to be available for specific projects. As a result, one has to rely on published data and industry averages. The table below provides the capital investment, land lease and property tax costs and estimates associated with the various NH wind operations that I have been able to assemble from various publications. The table also shows the calculation of these costs on a per megawatt basis. Overall, the installed capital costs for these projects have been of the order of $2.5 million/MW and the weighted average of the fixed land lease and property tax portion costs are $27,000/MW ($27/kW) per year.
The figure below shows the various costs components as well as my estimates of these for the NH wind projects. The cost data reflect averages and my estimates rather than specific costs associated with any particular project. These costs were then used to calculate the LCOE for a typical NH wind operation - which I estimate to be $126/MWh ($0.126/kWh). The operating costs, fixed and variable, when converted to the cost of MW of electricity produced, are of the order of $20/MWh. The annualized capital costs are $106/MWh, demonstrating that the majority of the cost, 84%, of producing electricity from a wind farm is related to the large upfront capital investment.
I will note that my calculated costs are higher than the $71/MWh national average calculated by NREL. The difference is due to the following:
- The capacity factors for NE wind projects – typically 0.30 – are lower than the national average of 0.38;
- The capital costs of $2.5 million per MW I have used are higher than the $2.1 million figure used by NREL;
- The non-capital related operating costs used by NREL are $10/MWh which are lower than my estimate of $20/MWh.
In the figure below I have incorporated my revenue diagram from my last post with the cost diagram above to provide a comparison of the revenue and cost structure on a single figure so you can get a sense of the margins in the wind business. It is important to bear in mind that revenues and costs vary over time and are different for each specific project. Many of the costs are fixed but the revenue that wind farms can obtain from electricity and REC sales can be highly variable and dependant on customer demand and negotiated power purchase agreements. Overall profitability, of course, is also very much dependent on how hard and how often the wind blows.
One might argue about some of the specific details associated with my cost estimates but they do reflect the fact that operating wind farms in NH is rather different to an equivalent (and often much larger) operation on the great plains of Nebraska. It is my assessment that the costs of NH wind electricity are high: the importance of subsidies from the production tax credits and the sales of RECs are therefore very important to the wind industry. The subsidy portion of the revenue stream is 50% or more of the overall revenue. Without these subsidies these wind farms would be under pressure to make money and they would definitely find themselves struggling to make headway against the wind* in a high cost and low subsidy environment.
Until next time, remember to turn off the lights when you leave the room.
Franklin Pierce University
(*Against the Wind – A 1980 album and tune by Bob Seger. An oldie but goodie suggested by blog reader Laurie Smith from South Africa. Bob Seger had a thing for mid-tempo ballads telling stories of struggle and sometimes redemption. Here is the link – Against the Wind)
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