Beating Swords into Wind Turbines–or Solar Panels if You Like

By Paul Gipe

Now that President Bush has again exhorted Americans to “stay the course” in Iraq, perhaps it’s a good time to consider what we could have done with the money spent on waging war in the Middle East had we heeded the Biblical injunction to beat swords into plowshares.

The following op-ed was originally posted on July 4, 2005 and then appeared at Renewable Energy on July 11, 2005. This version has been updated with current figures for the cost of the war and estimates of its total direct and indirect costs (to the USA only).

Rather than plowshares, what could the United States have done if it beat its swords into wind turbines or, if you prefer, solar panels? What could we have accomplished toward building a renewable future here in North America instead of launching a war in the oil-rich heart of the Persian Gulf? The answer is simple: a lot.

Wars are expensive and the money used to pay for them can be used for something else. To date, our Iraq misadventure has cost Americans $454 billion and is fast approaching 1/2 trillion dollars. And we’re not finished yet. As Senator Everett Dirksen once said “a million here, a million there, pretty soon it adds up to real money”.

At nearly $80 billion per year, if we “stay the course” as the President urges us to do and stay locked in combat for years to come as former Secretary Rumsfeld warned, we could approach one trillion dollars in direct costs. Of course this does not include the indirect costs in suffering of American soldiers and sailors nor the costs to Iraq and Iraqis.

The United States could now be generating from 1% to 15% of its electricity supply if the direct costs of the Iraq war had been invested instead in wind or solar energy.

This exercise is just to give a range of lost opportunities: lost opportunities to develop our own solar and wind industries and lost renewable generation.

To make the task easier to follow, I’ve made some simplifying assumptions on the installed cost of wind and solar generating capacity and on its performance in the field. These assumptions are consevative and my colleaugues in the wind and solar industry will argue that the costs are too high and the generation of electricity is too low. Nevertheless, the values used are well within real-world experience.

Wind Plowshares

At the cost of today’s wind turbines–-not some future cost-–the money spent on the Iraq war to date would have resulted in the installation of 227,000 MW of wind generating capacity. Considering the breadth of the United States and the experience with the thousands of wind turbines in California, our fleet of wind turbines could generate from 454 TWh to 1,200 TWh per year. With the United States consuming 3,900 TWh per year, the War Turbines could produce from 12 to 31 percent of total U.S. electrical consumption.

Taking another approach, we can also estimate the results if instead of buying the wind turbines directly we used the money to pay the difference between the current wholesale cost of electricity and the wind energy tariffs used in Europe and Ontario, Canada. In some countries this is known as a “bonus” payment. I’ve assumed that the bonus payment would last 20 years, the life of the wind turbine. Using this approach, the War Turbines could produce from 15 to 38 percent of total U.S. electrical consumption

It’s reasonable to say that current direct costs of the war could have been used to offset between 12 to 15 percent of the country’s current consumption.


Solar Plowshares

Photovoltaics remain expensive relative to wind energy, but the industry is rapidly expanding in Japan and Germany. Japan currently operates in excess of 1,000 MW of PV generating capacity and Germany, the world’s leader, now operates 2,500 MW installed PV. Nevertheless, if the United States had redirected its war expenditures toward PV, we could have quickly overtaken both countries.

At the current cost of PV installations in California, the funds spent on the war in Iraq could have resulted in the installation of 45,000 MW of PV across the country. That’s sufficient to provide 18% of the dwelling units in the United States with a PV system of 2.5 kW.

We find about the same result if we use the cost of the war to offset the price differential between the current wholesale cost and the cost of tariffs typical for PV in European feed laws.

War Panels alone could generate about 40 to 100 TWh per year or 1 to 3 percent of total consumption–-a not negligible amount in a country that uses so much electricity.

More significantly, such a large-scale development program, reminiscent of Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration, would push America to the forefront of solar photovoltaics technology, enabling us to not only meet our own needs for clean, renewable electricity, but also enabling us to ship panels to distant–shall we say “foreign” lands–to help them meet their more modest needs.

Perhaps in the future we can ship wind turbines and solar panels to the Persian Gulf instead of our sons and daughters.