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Costs of Renewable Sources of Energy

Dhreen K. Tulsiani
Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Department, Wichita State University
1845 Fairmount, Wichita, KS 67260, USA
Abstract Over the decades, the desire for replacing non-renewable sources of energy with renewable sources has
increased drastically. In this paper, I introduce the need of renewable sources of energy for generating electricity by
highlighting the high costs and the potentially disastrous impact on health and environment associated with nonrenewable energy sources. I will then provide some insight on the renewable sources of energy, specifically on solar power
and wind power by comparing the historical, current and future costs of both the renewable sources. I will provide
reasons as to why the costs are falling and I will draw conclusions based on my findings.
Index Terms Renewable energy sources, Energy, Solar energy, Photovoltaic cells, Wind energy


s the name suggests, non-renewable source of energy is the source of energy that cannot be replenished in a

short amount of time. Fossil fuels such as coal, oil and petroleum products, and natural gas are considered as nonrenewable energy sources [1]. Coal and natural gas are used to generate 42 percent and 22 percent respectively, of
the total electric power and energy in the United States [2]. As far as the consumption of petroleum products is
concerned, the United States is at the top of the list which is highlighted by the fact that 19.2 million barrels of oil
and petroleum per day were consumed in 2010 [2]. However, the concern that non-renewable sources are being used
up at such a fast rate is not the only concern. Cost, health and environmental concerns are associated with nonrenewable sources of energy as well.
In 2006, the fossil fuel expenditures accounted for $921 billion, which is more than what the country allocates its
expenses for education or military and for the first time ever in 2008, the national spending presumably surpassed $1
trillion [3]. These are some very high numbers but thats not all as there are health costs associated as well. Health
costs account to $120 billion a year [4]. Health costs arise from the pollution caused by burning fossil fuels and they
have a severe impact on the health. Burning fossil fuel causes lung damage and each year about 20,000 people die
primarily due to the pollutants released by power plants and vehicles [4]. These pollutants are not only harmful to
the individuals, but they also affect the environment. Burning coal, which is a fossil fuel, includes coal mining and
coal processing, each of which contributes to pollution. Coal mining releases nitrogen oxide which adds to smog,
and also sulfur dioxide which leads to acid rain; and coal processing pollutes the rivers with the chemicals released
to filter the coal [4]. Another example of fossil fuels causing harm to the environment would be burning of fossil
fuels in general. 79 percent of the greenhouse gases in the United States were emitted from burning fossil fuels in
2010 [2]. This contributes to global warming. All of these burning, mining and processing techniques are potentially
disastrous and catastrophic to the environment and to our planet.
The need for the replacement of non-renewable sources of energy with the available options of renewable sources
has grown over the years due to the concerns described above. However, renewable sources of energy have not been
adopted widely. There are a few countries that have been switching to the renewable energy sector at a very fast
rate. For example, a report from 2010 states that Portugal would generate nearly 45 percent of the electricity from
only renewable sources that year, which would be an increase of 28 percent in just five years [5]. On the other hand,
a majority of the countries are still relying on fossil fuels for generating electricity and other energy purposes. For
instance, the United States currently produces only 12 percent of the countrys electricity by utilizing renewable
energy sources [6]. This means that 88% of the countrys electricity is still being produced from fossil fuels. Such
high dependence on fossil fuels would soon lead to its extinction.
There are various factors due to which renewable sources of energy have not been adopted on a large scale. One
such factor is cost. Historically, renewable energy sources such as solar photovoltaics and wind generators have
proved to be very costly. However, with time, there have been numerous improvements that have contributed to the
falling costs of these energy sources. Currently, they are priced at a much lower rate than they were decades ago.

Following the current trend, the future looks bright for renewable energy sources as the prices in the future will be
much cheaper, making the renewable sources of energy much more affordable to the common man.
This paper discusses about costs and it is important to understand the different concepts of costs, power and how
they are related. Costs can be specified in price per kilowatt and price per kilowatt-hour. Kilowatt is a measure of
power whereas kilowatt-hour is a measure of energy. Power can be generated or used. For example, we consider
using solar energy as a renewable source because we are able to generate power. A solar panel rated 100 watts
would generate 100 watts of power. This generated power can be used to supply power to devices that consume
power. On the other hand, a bulb rated 100 watts will consume 100 watts of power when switched on. Energy is the
amount of power used in a given period of time (and not necessarily in one hour).
Price (or cost) per kilowatt is the cost that an individual would have to pay to purchase one kilowatt of a
particular device. In other words, it represents the cost of a machine. Price (or cost) per kilowatt-hour is the cost that
an individual would have to pay for using one kilowatt-hour. In other words, it represents the cost an individual
would pay when multiple devices are connected in a given period of time. It makes more sense to use price per
kilowatt-hour to calculate energy costs. This is the reason why electric companies include the amount of kilowatthour used over a period of one month. The price per kilowatt-hour can be easily found by dividing the total cost to
be paid by the amount of kilowatt-hour used in that particular month. Kilowatt and kilowatt-hour can also be
represented in watt and watt-hour by making some conversions.
A. An Introduction to Solar Energy
Energy can be harnessed from the sun. If the sun shines at a place, energy can be produced at that particular place.
Solar energy is the energy from the sun and humans exist because the sun shines. Trees and plants use sunlight along
with carbon dioxide during photosynthesis to release oxygen in the air. Humans complete this cycle by taking in the
oxygen and releasing carbon dioxide. In short, solar energy is vital for the survival of humans. Apart from being an
important factor of survival for humans, solar energy can be utilized in different ways. An example of utilizing suns
energy would be focusing the rays of sun on a sunny day on a piece of paper using a magnifying glass. The paper
will set on fire quickly. This simple experiment teaches us two things. Firstly, through various channels, we can
capture the suns energy in order to utilize it for various purposes. Secondly, the energy from the sun is so much that
a paper can catch fire quickly as described above. This makes solar energy a renewable source of energy.
Solar energy can be collected and converted into electricity. This is known as producing power from the suns
energy or solar power. Solar energy can be stored using solar panels and solar panels consist of about 40 solar cells
or also known as photovoltaic cells [7]. This technology is known as solar photovoltaic technology. A well-known
example of using the solar cells would be in a calculator. Using similar technology, solar panels can be installed in
homes too. The amount of sunlight that falls on the United States in one day is greater than twice the amount of
energy people utilize in an entire year [8]. This means that the amount of sunlight is in abundance and can be
utilized wisely by harnessing energy. People can install solar electric systems in their homes as they are built to last
30 years, and these systems pay for themselves after 4-5 years meaning the next 25-26 years of power consumed
would be free of cost [9].
B. Historical Costs
The first solar cells were made available to the public in 1956 with the cost of $300/watt [10]. As a result, the
popularity of solar cells was almost negligible during the late 1950s due to high costs. The official emergence of
solar cells and solar panels in the commercial market could be linked to the energy crisis during the 1970s [11].
Around this time, progress was made in the solar cell technology field as well. The energy crisis resulted in a
shortage and elevated prices of oil and petroleum products which led to an increase in demand for solar panels.
At the same time, the first factory for producing solar cells for daily applications, the Institute for Local SelfReliance, was founded in 1974 [19]. However in terms of energy costs in 1974, the cost of solar power was over
$3/kilowatt-hour [19]. Also, the price of solar panels was still as high as 30 times the current price during the 1970s,
whereas the solar electricity costs were more than 100 times the current price during that time [11], [19]. The price
of solar cells was at the high end of $70/watt in 1977 [12]. With such high prices, only a few royal homes could
afford the new technology.
The breakthrough in solar energy usage was when the 39th President of the United States Jimmy Carter called for
a huge investment in June 1979 in the solar power industry by installing 32 solar panels at a total cost of $30,000 or

at $40/watt [13], [14]. It was a major breakthrough because it brought the solar technology into the limelight for the
first time. President Carter himself admitted that this step was only an experiment and was confident that the
technology would progress further and prices would fall as time goes by [13].
In terms of the cost of energy usage, the utility companies were charging more than $1/kilowatt-hour in 1980 [8].
The efficiency during the 1980s of solar panels was also quite low. A solar panel could only produce 22 watts of
power during the 1980s [15]. With such low power, small devices such as calculators could be powered efficiently.
As a result, Texas Instruments eliminated the use of batteries by introducing its first solar powered hand-held
calculator at a fairly reasonable price of $19.95 in 1981 [16].
As technology progressed, the price of solar panels fell considerably. The cost of solar panels during 1980s was
between $10/watt to $20/watt and during the 1990s, it was between $5/watt to $10/watt [17]. In 1990, the total
capacity of installed solar panels in the United States was about 200 megawatts, enough to power 4000 homes which
increased to about 135,000 homes being powered by solar power in the year 2000 [19]. Fig. 1 shows the falling
trend of solar photovoltaic panels [18]. The graph shows a steady decline in the prices of solar panels from 1977 to

Fig. 1. A bar graph to show the falling trend of solar photovoltaic panels

C. Current Costs
Fig. 1 clearly shows the falling trend leading up to the current year. Over the years, solar panels have improved
drastically. More than 1.5 million American homes can be powered with the current solar electric capacity [20]. If
we just take into consideration the recent history, the average cost of a solar panel has declined by 60% since the
beginning of 2011 [20]. People who install solar panels on their houses will end up paying lesser than ever before.
For the first time in the history of the solar electric technology, the price of solar panels fell below $1/watt as the
price of $1.2/watt in 2011 fell to 90 cents per watt in 2012 [21]. Fig. 1 shows a further fall in the price of solar
panels in 2013 as they are currently priced at 74 cents per watt.
As far as the energy usage costs are concerned, solar energy costs currently lie within the range of 12 cents per
kilowatt-hour to 30 cents per kilowatt-hour [22]. Different states charge different amounts. The energy costs are

expected to fall with the falling prices of solar panels in the similar fashion as it did in the past [22]. Cities such as
Arizona where the sun shines the most charge the lowest prices for solar energy distribution [23]. The current
situation is that big companies have started utilizing renewable energy sources to power their factories, facilities and
workplaces. Apple, an American multinational corporation, recently announced the construction of a new
manufacturing facility in Arizona that will operate on 100% renewable energy such as solar power from the very
first day of its opening [24]. Such investments by large and reputed multinational companies would encourage many
different companies and small business owners to invest in renewable energy sources such as solar power.
D. Future Costs
It is clear from the discussion above that prices of solar panels have been falling tremendously. Technology is
getting better every day which cause the fall in the prices. Apparently, the falling costs of solar panels follow the
Swanson effect.
Essentially, the cost of photovoltaic cells need to generate solar power falls 20%
with each doubling of global capacity. This has been dubbed the "Swanson Effect"
after Richard Swanson the founder of SunPower, the large US-based manufacturers
of solar cells [25].
Fig. 1 shows the Swanson effect over a period of about four decades. It is a very good indication that the solar prices
will fall in the future.
Greentech Media, a research company, initially in some of the earlier researches in 2012 anticipated that the cost
of solar photovoltaic modules to be around 50 cents per watt by 2015 [26]. However, a research by Greentech Media
in early 2013 contradicted its own forecast and claimed that the traditional silicon based solar panels would now cost
only 42 cents per watt by 2015 [26]. Such a low price has the potential to quite possibly start a revolution in the
energy industry as it would lead the United States and even other nations to re-consider the way electricity is
Silicon, which is a semiconductor to absorb sun light, has always been the material installed in solar panels.
Researchers have been looking into Perovskites, a material known for over a century, which can bring down the
costs of solar panels to about 10 to 20 cents per watt if installed in solar panels [27]. However, change is often
opposed by human nature. Current solar panels using silicon material have a very high record of reliability and
stability. Analysts claim that silicon solar panels have a proven track record of falling costs, and at the current rate
the costs would fall further up to 25 cents per watt, which would eliminate risking the technology using the new
material perovskites as the costs would be around the same level [27]. As a result, researches are being done to
install a material that can bring down the costs and increase the efficiency at the same time.
E. Why the costs are falling?
The Swanson effect exists due to various reasons. A lot of factors contribute to the falling costs of solar panels
every year. Every year there are numerous technological and manufacturing advancements. However, probably the
most important factors that are driving down the costs are due to economic factors such as economies of scale and
market maturation [28].
According to [29], economies of scale is a situation in the economy of a market which occurs when more and
more units of goods and services are produced on a large scale with falling costs. In the situation of the solar panel
industry, as more solar panels were produced, the costs came down [28]. A simple explanation of this could be that
as the solar panel costs drop, it encourages more people to adopt this technology. Thus, the solar power industry
grows at a faster rate which further lowers the costs of solar [28].
On the other hand, market maturation is also a contributing factor. Market maturation is a situation when the
market size in an economy is the highest which leads to high profits [30]. Market maturation is also a situation when
the market growth is slow [30]. This can be explained by the amount of time it took for the cost of solar panels to
fall. The number of people adopting the solar technology for energy purposes has been growing but was growing
slowly during the early days. However, as the market started growing faster, the competition increased. When
competition increased, the price of solar panels declined as sellers wanted their products to sell first [28]. This cycle
happened over and over again which eventually led to the price that we have today.
Looking ahead in the future, the cycles economies of scale and market maturation would repeat bringing the costs
of solar panels. Also, there will be a number of technological and manufacturing advancements as the technology
gets better each day. All of these factors would bring down the costs.


A. An Introduction to Wind Energy
Just like solar energy, another renewable source of energy is wind energy which is the energy harnessed from
wind. Theoretically, wind exists in infinite amounts. Some cities are known for excess amount of winds. Cities such
as Boston, Massachusetts; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; and Wichita, Kansas are some of the windiest cities in the
United States. Such cities have great potential to produce and utilize wind energy on a large scale. Wind is nothing
but moving air currents on the surface of the earth. A simple example of this could be an empty boat in a sea. When
wind blows, the boat moves because the air is pushing the boat in a certain direction. This is a simple example of
wind energy where the wind was transformed into the energy of motion. Another similar example would be of golf.
Is it a well-known fact that a person should hit the golf ball taking into the consideration the direction of wind since
the wind will move the golf ball. As a result, wind moves the golf ball while in air. This is another example of wind
turning itself into energy to move the ball.
Different machines are designed to convert wind energy. Windmills are machines that convert wind energy into
rotational energy using blades. Windmills are used for milling grain and extracting groundwater. Wind generators
are used to convert wind energy into electricity. A windmill has more blades than a wind generator because a
windmill has to do a lot more physical work but a wind generator is a lot taller than a windmill. A wind turbine
converts the kinetic energy in the wind into mechanical power and a generator connected to the wind turbine can
convert this mechanical power to generate electricity [31]. A wind generator is also known as a wind turbine or a
wind power plant. For the purpose of this paper, wind turbines will be discussed hereafter and not windmills.
B. Historical Costs
The history of wind turbines can be traced back to 1931 when Russia constructed the first ever 100kW
commercial power plant, known as Balaclava Wind Generator which used wind turbines to generate electricity [32],
[33]. People showed their interest in it by claiming that this technology would change how the world produces most
of its energy. It is a well-known fact that the price of new technology is always high. Thus, it was a wind turbine
capable of producing wind power but at high prices.
This initial attempt by Russia never stood a chance to impact much in the long run. As a result, when fuel was
much cheaper at the end of World War II, people started losing their interest in wind turbines [34]. However, wind
turbines became popular again but not before 1970s. When oil prices peaked in the 1970s, people started gaining
interest in wind turbines again [34]. The fluctuations of fuel and oil prices impacted the wind turbines and this price
variation always existed in the early decades of the wind generators.
The urge for the need for wind energy accelerated when NASA stepped in the wind energy production programs.
In 1974, NASA led the U. S. Wind Energy Program to construct 13 large turbines [35]. The cost of wind power was
quite high in 1970s. In 1978, the cost of energy from wind turbines was more than $1/kilowatt-hour [38]. The
program led by NASA continued until 1981 and they created some of the strongest systems that are dominant today
with the basic view in mind to convert wind energy into mechanical and electrical energy [35].
The initiative by NASA caused a positive impact in the wind energy industry and this impact could be clearly
seen in the 1980s. During the 1980s, the cost of electricity generated from wind dropped drastically down to 30
cents/kilowatt-hour [36]. By the end of 1986, there were about 6,700 wind turbines just in the California area which
had been installed at a cost of $1 billion and each turbine was capable of producing about 100 kilowatts [37]. We
can perform some simple calculations to obtain the cost of one turbine per kilowatt.
Cost of one wind turbine

$149,254 per wind turbine

Hence, the cost of one wind turbine in 1986 was around $149,254. However, it should be noted that this cost is for
every turbine and each turbine could produce about 100 kilowatts. We can obtain the price per kilowatt per turbine,
which is the common convention.
Cost of one wind turbine per kilowatt


per kilowatt

Thus, the cost of a wind turbine was around $1,500 per kilowatt by 1986.
By 1990s, the cost of wind power was around 7 cents/kilowatt-hour [39]. This was a tremendous drop from the
price of 30 cents/kilowatt-hour just a decade earlier.

C. Current Costs
Wind power industry is an industry that has been constantly developing with turbines becoming more and more
efficient and energy costs falling rapidly. While comparing current costs, it is important to consider the recent
history. In 2009, the cost of producing electricity from new wind farms was ranged between 4 cents/kilowatt-hour to
9 cents/kilowatt-hour [40]. The range exists due to the changes in fuel prices. People often fail to realize that
although there might be a fall in the price of fuel energy at a point of time, the short term looks more attractive than
the long run. A recent study at Harvard found out that the hidden costs of coal can add up to be 9 cents/kilowatt-hour
to 27 cents/kilowatt-hour higher than the original price [40]. The original price of coal was about 6.7 cents/kilowatthour as of 2011 [40]. This means that fuel prices could actually cost a total of about 15.7 cents/kilowatt-hour to 33.7
cents/kilowatt-hour. Looking at these figures, it is easier to select an option that overall costs low.
In terms of the costs of wind turbines, the turbines have remained more or less at the same price. It is vital to note
that even though wind turbines are not any cheaper now than they were back in 1980s, their efficiency has vastly
improved. In other words, wind turbines now provide more value for the money. The Department of Energy, as of
2012, reported that the average cost of wind turbines was down by $200/kilowatt from the cost in 2011 and down by
$300/kilowatt from the reported cost in 2009 and 2010 [41]. For example, the 2012 version of a wind turbine has a
list price of $1,500/kilowatt [42]. This is the same as the price in 1986. However, an individual could naturally
expect numerous improvements and advancements in the wind turbines in the 2012 version.
As of 2013, the wind prices have fallen further. Currently, the cost of producing electricity from wind is about 4
cents/kilowatt-hour [43].
D. Future Costs
The future of wind power looks bright. The wind industry has specified its goals and has set a target of installing
wind turbines so that 100 gigawatts of power can be produced by 2020 [44]. With this viewpoint, projects and
initiatives are currently being undertaken in order to secure a strong future for wind energy. For instance, a large
wind farm, known as The London Array, is being constructed in United Kingdom about 20 kilometers off the Kent
coast and this project will have 300 wind turbines capable of producing a total of 1 gigawatt upon its completion in
2015 [45].
Wind power in the future is anticipated to cost about the same with little fluctuations in the wind energy prices.
The US Department of Energy has anticipated that the wind energy costs would be around 5 cents/kilowatt-hour by
2020 and around 4.2 cents/kilowatt-hour by 2030 [46]. However, the department has also anticipated that 300
gigawatts of power would be produced by 2030 [46]. This means that the costs would follow a trend that they have
been following until now. The turbine costs and energy costs would more or less remain the same. Wind turbines
would still cost around $1500/kilowatt and wind energy would still cost about 4-5 cents/kilowatt-hour by 2030.
However, wind turbines in the future will be developed with new systems that would reduce the overall costs. Wind
turbines would be manufactured to improve efficiency of the turbine blades by as much as 35% [47]. This means
wind turbines would be more productive in the future and they would provide a better value for the money.
An interesting research is being done to substitute cars running on fuel with electric cars. Gasoline costs as much
as $4/gallon in some areas in the United States with the average being around $3.50/gallon. The American Wind
Energy Association recently suggested the idea of using wind energy to power upcoming electric cars across the
country [48]. In case this becomes a reality, the cars would operate at most at a price of 3 cents/mile [48]. On the
other hand, vehicles operating today on gasoline operate at a cost of about 14.4 cents/mile [48]. It is clear that about
11 cents/mile can be saved by switching to wind energy in the future.
E. Why are the costs falling?
Wind power has been developing at a rapid pace. Wind generators have gotten larger as the years have passed by.
Wind turbines went from 1.2 megawatts on an average to 1.6 megawatts in just three years [49]. This indicates a
33% increase in the average capacity of the wind turbines. In fact, currently wind turbines capable of generating 2.3
megawatts are available and it is anticipated that turbines capable of producing 7 megawatts will be available soon
[49]. The increase in the capacity, and thus the size of the turbines, causes a significant impact on the prices of wind
power. Newer and larger turbines can produce more electric power from the wind as compared to the older turbines
[49]. This means that more electricity can be produced at the same cost as before.
There is a further drop in the prices of wind power because newer wind turbines operate just as efficiently at
lower wind speeds as they would at higher wind speeds [49]. This is an advantage to the cities who do not receive
wind. In the past, windy cities were preferred for generating wind power. However, with time the wind turbines
have become much more efficient as they are able to produce more wind power at lower costs (in terms of the value
for money).

Apart from these factors, wind costs are also affected by fuel prices. There is always an uncertainty in the prices
of fuel. When the price of fuel decreases, the demand for alternative sources decreases. However, when the price of
fuel peaks, this drives investors, households and businesses to consider alternative options as the price for alternative
sources such as wind power falls. History has shown a falling trend in the costs of wind power. Historically, wind
energy would cost more than a dollar per kilowatt-hour but currently, wind energy costs only about 4 cents/kilowatthour. Fuel prices have played a key part throughout the history of wind power.
Renewable energy sources such as solar power and wind power are also known as green energy sources. They are
known as green energy sources because of the fact that these sources produce energy from sunlight and wind.
Sunlight and wind do not have fuel costs, carbon costs and environmental costs. They simply have the cost of
converting sunlight and wind into energy. In other words, the costs incurred are the costs to install and use solar
photovoltaics and wind turbines. There are no other costs such as health costs or environmental costs associated with
these energy sources that could potentially hurt an individual. This is the reason why progress in renewable energy
industry should be made immediately in order to conserve and utilize non-renewable sources wisely before they run
out. Solar energy and wind energy should be brought into mainstream and people should be educated about the costeffectiveness of these energy sources.
Solar power historically cost more than $3/kilowatt-hour but due to tremendous improvements in science and
technology, it costs as low as 12 cents/kilowatt-hour today. Solar photovoltaics cost as high as $300/watt in the
1950s but they cost only about 74 cents/watt. This fall is price is drastic in terms of both energy costs and
photovoltaic costs. Theories such as the Swanson effect have been proposed which define a trend for the falling
prices of the solar costs. Historically, the solar energy has followed the Swanson effect quite closely. It is safe to
claim that the prices would fall further in the future. Solar photovoltaics are anticipated to cost as low as 25
cents/watt in the future. With such low prices, it is an investment worth making.
As far as wind energy is concerned, wind power has had its ups and downs throughout the history. Oil and fuel
prices have always affected wind energy and the reason of this is because wind power was never seen as a potential
source to produce energy. In 1970s, the wind power would cost more than $1/kilowatt-hour. However, wind
industry has developed at a very good pace. This could be clearly seen by the falling costs of wind power. Wind
power now costs as low as 4 cents/kilowatt-hour and is expected to stay around this price in the future. Wind
turbines have cost the same throughout the history but there have been numerous improvements in technology which
have contributed to the efficiency of the wind turbines resulting in better value for the money. Investments should be
made to produce electricity from wind generators as wind energy prices are at an all-time low and wind turbines are
improving each year with technology.
All in all, solar power and wind power have come a long way. Numerous researches have been carried out in both
the fields resulting in efficient solar photovoltaics and wind turbines. Its time for solar power and wind power to
change the world by producing green energy.
I would like to acknowledge Professor Boyd Teemant for teaching me in the second half of the Fall 2013
semester. He introduced me to the class of research writing by providing some simple examples of how to paint the
picture for the audience. He then provided instructions on how to develop a thesis statement, thesis paragraph and an
outline. All of these elements have contributed greatly in my research paper. He also provided feedback often to
make sure I was on the right track and heading in the right direction. Professor Boyd Teemant has been very helpful
all along and I would like to thank him a lot for that.

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