Wind Energy Experts Anticipate Significant Continued Cost Reductions

New study shows expected declines of 35 percent to 41 percent by 2050

AMHERST, Mass. – A panel of international wind power experts, in a study designed by the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Erin D. Baker and others, says technology advancements are expected to continue to drive down the cost of wind energy. The survey of the world’s foremost wind power experts, led by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, anticipates cost reductions of 24 percent to 30 percent by 2030 and 35 percent to 41 percent by 2050, under a median or “best guess” scenario, driven by bigger and more efficient turbines, lower capital and operating costs and other advancements.

Baker is a professor of industrial engineering and operations research in the UMass Amherst College of Engineering specializing in energy technology policy. She is also the director of a program funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) on offshore wind energy engineering, environmental impacts and policy. Baker is a world leader in the field of collecting and using expert forecasts about technological change in the energy industry.

The findings are described in an article in the journal Nature Energy published today, Sept. 12. The study was led by Ryan Wiser, a senior scientist at Berkeley Lab, and included contributions from Baker, other staff from Berkeley Lab, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and participants in the International Energy Agency (IEA) Wind Technology Collaboration Programme Task 26.

The study summarizes a global survey of 163 wind energy experts to gain insight into the possible magnitude of future wind energy cost reductions, the sources of those reductions, and the enabling conditions needed to realize continued innovation and lower costs. Three wind applications were covered: onshore (land-based) wind, fixed-bottom offshore wind and floating offshore wind.

Baker says the new study highlights the overall downward trend in wind energy costs and also points out areas of uncertainty within long-term cost estimates. “This study highlights the opportunity space for wind, especially offshore wind, with radical cost reductions possible in the right policy environment. The recent bill aimed at promoting offshore wind in Massachusetts is the kind of thing that can help us move forward in the areas that the experts’ emphasized—foundations, installation and economies of scale for offshore wind turbines.”  

In absolute terms, onshore wind is expected to remain less expensive than offshore, at least for typical projects—and fixed-bottom offshore wind less expensive than floating wind plants. However, there are greater absolute reductions (and more uncertainty) in the levelized cost of energy for offshore wind compared with onshore wind, and a narrowing gap between fixed-bottom and floating offshore wind.

There are five key components that impact the cost of energy: upfront capital cost, ongoing operating costs, cost of financing, performance and project design life. Recent years have seen significant reductions in the upfront cost of wind projects as well as increases in wind project performance, as measured by the capacity factor of wind facilities. Experts anticipate continued improvements in these two overall cost drivers, as well as reduced operating costs, longer project design lives, and reductions in the cost of finance, with the relative impact of each driver dependent on the wind application in question. 

A key change will be in the size of wind turbines, according to experts. For onshore wind, growth is expected not only in generator ratings (to 3.25 MW on average in 2030) but also in two factors that increase capacity factors—rotor diameters (135 meters in 2030) and hub heights (115 meters in 2030). Fixed-bottom offshore wind turbines are expected to get even bigger, to 11 MW on average in 2030, helping to reduce upfront installed costs.

“Onshore wind technology is fairly mature, but further advancements are on the horizon—and not only in reduced upfront costs,” says Wiser. “Experts anticipate a wide range of advancements that will increase project performance, extend project design lives and lower operational expenses. Offshore wind has even greater opportunities for cost reduction, though there are larger uncertainties in the degree of that reduction.”

“Though expert surveys are not without weaknesses, these results can inform policy discussions, R&D decisions and industry strategy development while improving the representation of wind energy in energy-sector and integrated-assessment models,” concludes Wiser.

The survey was conducted under the auspices of the IEA Wind Technology Collaboration Programme (www.ieawind.org). Berkeley Lab’s contributions to this report were funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. Baker was partially supported in this work through a grant for offshore wind energy from the NSF.