Renewable Energy Economies of Scale are “Bullshit”

Date: 11 Nov 2010 | posted in: Energy, Energy Self Reliant States | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

I had a conversation with a wind developer yesterday and was talking about the difference between putting together large projects (over 80 MW) compared to distributed generation wind projects (80 MW and under).  I mentioned that we have a deep interest in understanding the economies of scale of renewable energy projects and he replied, “economies of scale are bullshit.”  He noted that large wind projects require significant development costs that smaller projects don’t encounter (including many more landowner negotiations and permits) and that installation and maintenance services are sufficiently widespread for any sized project to find services. 

It’s not entirely true that bigger projects have no economies of scale, but these two charts illustrate the larger point: Most economies of scale in solar PV and wind power are captured at a relatively small size.

The first chart is from the California Solar Statistics website, and draws on data from over 70,000 solar PV installations in California since 2005. 

Clearly, solar PV installations of 10 kW have captured more of the economies of scale for solar PV.  Costs may fall slightly for much larger projects, but the smaller number of projects makes it hard to see trends (interesting note: there seem to be as many > 100 kW solar projects costing over $10 per Watt as there are under $8 per Watt).

The second chart comes from the 2009 Wind Technologies Market Report by Ryan Wiser and Mark Bolinger (which is a must-read). 

The wind data is even more striking, with the lowest average project cost found in the projects with just a handful of turbines (5-20 MW of capacity), with costs steadily rising for larger projects.  Certainly there’s an advantage to having more than one turbine, but less so for growing the project much larger than 10 turbines. 

This data should inform renewable energy policy.  If modest-scale, distributed renewable energy projects capture most (or all) economies of scale, then the opportunity to place these projects close to load may reduce the need for new, long-distance, high-voltage transmission lines.   It means more renewable energy can come online faster and with fewer political battles. 

These smaller-scale projects are also the appropriate size for local ownership (which provides twice the jobs and 1-3 times the economic impact of absentee ownership), allowing more the economic benefits of renewable energy development to accrue to the host community.

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John Farrell

John Farrell directs the Energy Democracy initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and he develops tools that allow communities to take charge of their energy future, and pursue the maximum economic benefits of the transition to 100% renewable power.