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Location, location, location: Online map sheds light on costs of new energy

Location matters for new energy projects and now developers can determine the most competitive form of new electricity generation in each county in the U.S. thanks to a new online tool and interactive map from researchers at the University of Texas at Austin.

"This is really a holistic look at how power is delivered and what it costs," said Thomas Edgar, director of UT Austin's Energy Institute, during the project's recent launch. It looks at "what it costs in a given county to build a power plant and what are your options in terms of the relative costs."

Using the online map and calculator, the public can input different assumptions and externalities, such as the price for natural gas or carbon, to determine the lowest cost of new generation with the aid of county-specific data and an algorithm known as the lowest cost of electricity formula. A future update will allow transmission costs to be calculated on a county-by-county basis.

Joshua Rhodes, lead author of the report and postdoctoral research fellow at the institute, said the online tool seeks to help policymakers by providing them a sound cost calculation methodology with alterable cost factors.

"Costs vary by location," said Michael Webber, deputy director of the institute. Geographic-specific costs for capital, labor, fuel, fuel availability and environmental impacts add up to vastly different net outcomes for a project, he explained. However, the energy industry is lacking "objective decision support tools" needed in making those "important decisions about trillions of dollars of assets that last decades," Webber said.

"We want everyone to argue with the same information, although they might have different views on different costs like what the costs of natural gas will be," Webber said.

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By factoring in externalities, such as public health and environmental impacts, but excluding subsidies, the UT Austin researchers' findings generally reflected current market trends. As detailed in a series of maps in an accompanying report, "New U.S. Power Costs: by County, with Environmental Externalities," the researchers found natural gas to be the cheapest form of technology for new generation across much of the U.S., with large swathes of the High Plains, Midwest, Texas and ridges of Appalachia favoring wind generation.

Surprisingly, the researchers found nuclear power to be the cheapest new form of generation in 400 out of 3,110 counties nationwide, especially in Michigan, Wisconsin and in the southeast, where Alvin W. Vogtle and V.C. Summer nuclear projects are under construction.

"Wind is the cheapest option where it is windy, natural gas the cheapest option elsewhere, with nuclear the cheapest option in places where it is neither windy nor [where] gas is [cheap]," said Webber. Coal is only the cheapest option in areas like Wisconsin and Michigan if you ignore environmental impacts, he said.

The white paper is part of a more comprehensive study by UT Austin's Energy Institute called "The Full Cost of Electricity."