EIA data on electricity generator costs

Monday, August 6, 2012

What does it cost to build a new power plant?  The answer depends on the technology used and other factors - but the U.S. Energy Information Administration publishes a useful reference presenting its analysis of the so-called "overnight cost" of building new centralized electricity generation stations using a variety of technologies.

Each year, the EIA publishes an Annual Energy Outlook containing projections for the upcoming year.  This outlook considers a variety of potential future outcomes based on factors like changes in the demand for electricity or variations in fuel pricing.

Underlying the outlook is a series of assumptions about factors including the demand for electricity.  A document released last week by EIA looks at a variety of new central station electricity generating technologies, and provides cost and performance characteristics for each.

One section of the data focuses on the total overnight cost of new projects initiated in 2011, defined as the overnight capital cost including contingency factors, excluding regional multipliers, learning effects, and interest.  According to EIA, advanced combustion turbines have the lowest overnight cost: $666 per kilowatt (in 2010 dollars).  By contrast, municipal solid waste - landfill gas facilities have the highest overnight cost: $8,233 per kW.  Other technologies fall between these two extremes.

Capital cost is only one piece of the puzzle; variable and fixed operations and maintenance costs also play a major role in the economics of electric generation.  According to EIA, variable O&M costs range from zero per megawatt-hour (for onshore and offshore wind, and solar thermal and photovoltaic) to $14.70 per MWh for a conventional combustion turbine.  Fixed O&M costs range from as low as $6.70 per kilowatt for advanced combustion turbines to as high as $378.76 per kW for MSW - landfill gas facilities.

Not every technology is appropriate for any given site, and economic considerations must be matched with environmental, siting, and other factors in choosing power plant technologies needed to meet consumer demand.  EIA's data is also aggregated and analytically-derived, meaning individual projects will likely have capital or O&M costs that deviate from these averages.  Nevertheless the EIA data illustrates some of the dynamics underlying our future energy mix - will we build facilities with low capital costs but higher O&M costs, more expensive facilities with lower O&M costs -- or can we find technologies that perform well in all categories?

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