Do wind turbines and solar panels make cheap electricity?

I still like wind and solar energy, but I like to know all the facts. It’s kind of like how I still love the sundress, even if I have to pay extra shipping costs.

Key Points

  • The cost of wind turbines and solar panels keeps going down.
  • The cost of electricity in areas that use these resources is going up.
  • Why? Because even if the turbines and panels are cheap, the backup systems required aren’t.

I love the idea of wind and solar energy. Making energy from something that is free seems like a no brainer. Plus, every time I check the energy headlines, it seems like someone is talking about how the cost of things like solar panels, wind blades and wind towers is going down. Great news, right?

Unfortunately there are other costs to consider. It reminds me of online shopping. Just today I found an amazing deal on a sun dress and quickly added it to my cart. But when I went to check out, the shipping cost almost as much as the product itself.

With renewable energy, the services around the actual power plant add up as well. And that’s particularly true with wind and solar since they’re not always available when we need them.

This article titled “If Solar and Wind are So Cheap, Why Are They Making Electricity So Expensive?” in Forbes recently got me thinking about this more. In it, author Michael Shellenberger breaks down why an increasingly affordable energy resource could make energy more expensive. He notes that electricity prices are going up in areas using more renewable energy. For instance, California has seen a 24 percent electricity price increase from 2011 to 2017 even as it deploys significant solar energy on the grid.

Shellenberger explains these opposing trends with one fact: wind and solar are unpredictable:

"Solar and wind thus require that natural gas plants, hydro-electric dams, batteries of some other form of reliable power be ready at a moment’s notice to start churning out electricity when the wind stops blowing and the sun stops shining."

The author also points out that by not talking about these additional costs, we as consumers aren’t getting the whole story:

"By reporting on the declining costs of solar panels and wind turbines but not on how they increase electricity prices, journalists are – intentionally or unintentionally – misleading policymakers and the public about those two technologies."

I still like wind and solar energy, but I like to know all the facts. It’s kind of like how I still love the sundress, even if I have to pay extra shipping costs. Sundresses or solar power – either way, getting all the information on the bottom line is key before making a final decision.

Have you noticed more stories about things like solar panels and wind turbines getting cheaper? Are you surprised that those price decreases haven’t resulted in cheaper energy?


Sarah FolslandSarah is mom to the two cutest little girls in the entire world. Before choosing to make changing diapers and reading bed time stories her full time gig, she earned an M.A. in Political Science from The University of South Dakota, worked in the Governor’s Office as a policy analyst and dabbled in communications at her local utility. Follow Sarah on Twitter @EnergyMommy.

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