Comparing Costs

Electricity study includes biomass in near- and long-term power generation analysis.
By Lisa Gibson | November 01, 2011

Laying out the costs, constraints and resources wrapped up in six different energy technologies, the Electric Power Research Institute has set out to provide an overview of the electricity generation options for utilities, as well as the general public, through 2025.

Program on Technology Innovation: Integrated Generation Technology Options provides a near- and longer-term multifaceted overview of each technology, including a brief description of each; current and projected technology performance costs; major technical development direction and trends; fuel resource considerations; relevant business issues; and environmental concerns and considerations.
Fuels taken into account include coal, natural gas, nuclear, wind, solar and biomass. “We tried to take a comprehensive view of the power generation options that are most likely to play a significant role in the mix moving forward,” says John Hutchinson, EPRI senior project manager and principal investigator for the report. Geothermal was excluded this time, but may be included in future updates of the work, which began with an initial report in 2007, according to Stan Rosinski, program manager for EPRI. “It is a somewhat comparative view,” Hutchinson says of the report.

In 2015, the total cost for a bubbling fluidized bed boiler biomass plant is estimated to be between $3,500 and $4,400 per kilowatt (kW), according to the recent report. Total plant costs for nonrenewable technologies, such as natural gas, at between $1,060 and $1,150 per kW, fell well below that. But nuclear was right up at the top with biomass at $3,900 to $4,400. The total plant cost per kW of coal is $2,000 to $2,300.

Comparing biomass with other renewables looks much more promising. Off-shore wind is estimated to cost between $3,100 and $4,000 per kW in 2015, while concentrating solar thermal tips the scale at $3,300 to $5,300 with photovoltaic following close behind at $3,400 to $4,600. In 2025, solar, nuclear and wind power plant total costs are estimated to go down, as are biomass, estimated at $3,400 to $4,250 per kW. The total cost of nuclear power plants goes down slightly between 2015 and 2025, but coal plant costs are predicted to rise considerably when taking into account added carbon capture and storage technologies, according to the report.

“When you consider what the electric utilities and that sector of the industry are looking for in terms of their future planning, they want to be able to compare for their planning purposes what they see as a potential scenario for the future cost of any particular technology,” Rosinski says. “They have to weigh the different factors of what kind of generation they want to continue to pursue.”

Biomass was considered a major fuel in the report because it offers the important benefit of cofiring a renewable fuel with coal while maintaining existing assets, Hutchinson adds. Key biomass-related issues identified in the report include reducing costs and increasing fuel availability. Those costs can be reduced by mass application and economy of scale, the report adds. It would also help if biomass were consistently addressed in renewable portfolio standards.

“Certainly renewable energy standards factor into the mix of which renewable energy technologies we included, given that some states require some specific renewable energy technologies in their renewable energy standards, biomass included,” Hutchinson says.

The report provides an assessment, albeit a snapshot in time, based on how the EPRI researchers see the costs evolving, Rosinski says. “It’s really a tool the electricity industry can use to look at some of their future planning options for generating capacity.

“It’s our intent to share some of this information with the public so that others that use this type of information in developing long-term energy economic studies have a view into the industry in terms of what we see as the cost for these technologies moving forward,” Rosinski says.

—Lisa Gibson