Hidden costs. It sounds so seedy, doesn’t it? Sure, you booked that nice holiday, but what about all those extras? The airport transfers and the tanking exchange rate and the cost of parking at the bloody airport for 11 days… sorry, I think this is getting a little too personal.
But it is safe to say that nobody likes hidden costs, including the politicians making decisions about their countries’ energy policies and consumers who must live with the impacts of those policies. And the ‘hidden costs’ of renewables have come up in a couple of articles I have read this week, and these pieces got me thinking.
The first was an article in the Financial Times that argued that wind farms and other renewables were not as cheap as they claim, due to the hidden cost of balancing the grid to cope with intermittent production. The author argued wind only looked cheap because renewables are given preferential access to sell power to the grid.
His idea is that renewables should be subject to the same rules as those in the fossil fuels sector. Renewables companies should be forced to transmit power to the grid when they are told to, in the quantities they are told to, or should face fines. He said that this would give a better idea of the true cost of renewables.
It is not a bad idea – which is why the wind sector is grappling with how to make it happen, by investing in storage. This would enable wind farm owners to store electricity and deploy it when needed.
He also said that, if that did not happen, the cost of grid balancing should be taken into account when stating the cost of wind energy for consumers. There's no indication of how that could be done accurately – the article highlighted some estimates for the cost that varied wildly – but let’s go along with the idea for the moment.
Fine, make the ‘hidden costs’ of renewables freely available, but only if we do the same for other sectors. Sure, wind farms might add costs for consumers due to grid balancing, but let’s also factor in the hidden cost of cleaning up nuclear waste when determining the price of nuclear; and the cost of the environmental impacts of burning coal. Why not? It would be tough to get accurate figures for any of these, but let’s not pretend that wind is alone in its hidden costs. It is most definitely not.
The second article I thought was relevant was in Forbes, about the ‘hidden environmental costs’ of battery storage that would be needed for wind and solar projects, and electric vehicles. The author argued that environmental harm from batteries with wind farms “may overwhelm any environmental benefits” of wind.
There are two big points. The first is the presence of ‘may’. The environmental cost of batteries may outweigh the benefits of wind farms, but they also may not. It's still speculation.
And the second is that this criticism of the hidden environmental cost of storage is a new front in the battle between those in the wind sector and wind’s critics. Criticisms used to be that wind was too inefficient to make a big contribution to the energy mix, was too expensive, and could only exist with subsidies. Each of these has now been addressed, to some extent at least.
It now seems clear to us that intermittency, ‘hidden costs’ of grid balancing, and damage caused to the environment by batteries are some of the next major arguments to be knocked down. Again, that’s fine. This sector should be as open to scrutiny as any other, but we cannot let critics pretend that the potential environmental damage of batteries means that wind farms pose a unique risk to the environment compared to other power sources. They don’t.
Finally, batteries are only one type of storage, and others are being tested. We need to challenge any idea that harm from batteries is an argument against all storage.
So yes, wind has hidden costs, as do so many things in life – my holiday included. We need to accept them, deal with them, and robustly argue back against the misconceptions that will arise.
The Inflation Reduction Act has sparked major optimism in the US renewables sector, but wind installations still fell 37% last year.