State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Are Wind and Solar Power Really More Expensive and Less Reliable?

wind turbines on a hilltop
Wind turbines in Oregon. Photo: Bureau of Land Management

Not that long ago, critics of renewable sources of energy had a point when they claimed wind and solar power cost more and were less dependable than fossil fuels, mostly because they depend upon the wind blowing and the sun shining.

But that is changing. The steady progression of scientific achievements are making wind and solar as cost-efficient to produce as fossil fuels, and increasingly competitive at storing energy as well.

“The myths about renewable energy are based on prices and performance that are typically out-of-date,” said Bruce Usher, a professor of professional practice at Columbia Business School, where he teaches on the intersection of financial, social and environmental issues.

Advancements have both improved performance and lowered costs, said Steven Cohen, former long-time executive director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and now senior vice dean the University’s School of Professional Studies.

“Just as we saw with computers, the more time engineers spend on these issues, the better the technology becomes,” he said.

Meanwhile, the myth abides.

Renewables vs. Extreme Weather

Despite claims to the otherwise, renewables are no less reliable than other power sources during extreme weather events.

In Texas, which is the only state with its own power grid, Gov. Greg Abbott falsely blamed wind and solar power for last winter’s failure of the state’s energy grid during severe storms that saw power generation disrupted and natural gas pipelines freeze. Former Energy Secretary Rick Perry piled on, claiming that the incident exposed the danger of relying of renewable energy.

A federal study actually found that renewable sources outperformed fossil fuel production during the incident, which was mostly caused by failures of equipment inadequately protected from the freezing temperatures, regardless of the energy source. National Public Radio concluded it was a systemwide failure to prepare for extreme cold.

Cohen said the case in Texas was also ultimately a failure of regulation.

“Due to the deregulated nature of the Texas power system, windmills which can easily be protected from cold were not protected,” he said. “Windmills in northern Europe and the U.S. have no issue operating in the cold.”

In California, other critics of renewables made similar claims last summer during heatwave-related blackouts, even after a state study (PDF) found that the main causes were climate change-induced extreme weather, inadequate resources and planning processes, along with market practices — all unrelated to renewables.

“In California the issue has also been old transmission equipment, which causes forest fires and then is damaged during fires,” Cohen said.

Perhaps the common denominator among the energy failures caused by a frozen Texas and a blistering California is that neither state is prepared for the challenges presented by climate change.

Moving Toward Better Storage and Transmission

In California, the main issue wasn’t a lack of power generation, but not enough investment in batteries to store wind and solar power.

Usher points to advancements in battery technology as what has made renewable energy more reliable.

“Wind and solar have always been reliable generators of power,” Usher said, “when it’s windy and sunny.” It was the storage half of the equation that, in the past, made them less dependable.

“Wind and solar projects are increasingly being paired with energy storage — primarily in the form of batteries — making renewable sources more reliable by addressing the intermittency of wind and solar power generation,” Usher said.

large white batteries near wind turbines
A large Tesla battery stores energy from the Hornsdale Wind Farm in Australia. Photo: David Clarke

Along with more and better storage, both experts identified another key to increasing renewable energy production: moving the electricity from where it is generated to where it is needed. High-capacity transmission lines will help, Cohen said.

Funding the Future of Energy

Usher said that government tax incentives can play an important role in advancing battery technology and updating energy infrastructure, for example. But Cohen thinks the free market is the bigger engine here.

Most of the resources will come from energy utilities and consumers who will benefit from a more efficient and reliable energy system once renewables, microgrids and distributed generation of energy is combined with wind and solar farms, he said.

Cohen noted in a recent blog post that we’re already seeing a surge in climate-friendly stocks and a declining interest in fossil fuel companies, which are losing ground to renewable energy firms in attracting new capital.

Nonetheless, neither expert predicts renewables taking the place of fossil fuels any time soon.

“I think the idea that there is some number or quick fix is delusional,” Cohen said. “This is a transition that will take a generation to complete.”

Usher adds that “Anyone who thinks renewable power isn’t the future of energy isn’t looking at the fundamental trends that are nearly certain to create strong tailwinds for the industry for the next 30 years: lower costs plus increasing demand from electric vehicles and demand to decarbonize. The energy transition from fossil fuels to renewables will almost certainly happen, but over 30 years, not overnight.”

Columbia campus skyline with text Columbia Climate School Class Day 2024 - Congratulations Graduates

Congratulations to our Columbia Climate School MA in Climate & Society Class of 2024! Learn about our May 10 Class Day celebration. #ColumbiaClimate2024

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Michael DeLong
Michael DeLong
2 years ago

Great post. I wish the fix was quicker, but the market is moving us there quickly.

Tuco's Child
Tuco’s Child
1 year ago

The First Law of Thermodynamics is unfortunately ignored in almost all discussions around “renewables”.

You can’t create something from nothing.

These “renewables” depend on fossil fuels from cradle to grave in all aspects. The disposal and or recycling of the worn out panels and turbines requires fossil fuel burning.

Batteries are incredibly destructive to produce in that they require large amounts of fossil fuels and mining Co, Ni, Li, etc, ma and again, disposal and recycling are problematic and require more fossil fuels to achieve

Michael Chownyk
Michael Chownyk
Reply to  Tuco’s Child
1 year ago

At a certain point in the future when there’s enough market penetration I’ll renewables that are online, there will be methods to procure resources and recycling processes that are way more benign than the current use of high carbon footprint fossil fuels. There already is electric mining trucks and they can be recharged from renewables. In Europe there’s a lithium mine that’s powered by electric mining trucks from a solar array.

I completely support large scale battery Energy Storage projects. I was just reading A report from the International energy agency and they said there needs to be 44 times more grid scale battery energy storage systems put in in a place by 2030. The future looks bright for this technology.

Whatever type of storage technology we’re talking about whether it’s lithium ion sodium ion vanadium redox flow battery or something completely new all technologies should be pursued.

Jimmy E. W.
Jimmy E. W.
1 year ago

“Advancements have both improved performance and lowered costs”. Where is the journalistic vigor and integrity in this article? You are only able to speculate if the article is biased as there are no data provided as to what the costs were, are now, and will be for renewables compared to traditional energy sources such as coal, nuclear, etc …At a minimum, you’d expect this data to be provided for any article that is making comparisons of any kind as to the costs of the types of energy sources.

Last edited 1 year ago by Jimmy E. W.
Sid B
Sid B
Reply to  Jimmy E. W.
9 months ago

Reading the article, you would find they discussed advancements in battery storage technologies to store energy to be used in the event the wind isn’t blowing or the sun isn’t shining. Also, could they maybe include a graph? Sure, but any observer of energy markets could tell you that wind and solar energy have gotten cheaper and more cost-competitive over time.

Dr. Donnie Smith
Dr. Donnie Smith
4 months ago

It’s a lie…My electricity provider, one of the largest in the state Texas, has informed we co-op shareholders we are paying two times the amount for electricity generated by solar and wind as we pay for natural gas and nuclear power generated electricity.
One reason is the wind doesn’t always blow when electrical power is needed and the sun only sines a third of the day and sometimes not at all.
So-called renewable electric power hoax just like the climate change hoax.