The State Of The Union On Wind Energy: A Tale Of Two Fact Checks



UPDATE (1/15/16): After publication of this post, The Washington Post updated its article to include the following: 

Update: Supporters of wind power energy noted [the Utah State/Strata] report is backed by wind power critics, and said it's unfair to criticize the tax credits because fossil fuels have received many more government incentives than renewables over a longer period of time. They pointed to other sources showing wind's costs to be lower than for other electricity sources.


The Washington Post's Fact Checker wrongly challenged President Obama's State of the Union comments about wind energy by citing a study linked to the oil billionaire Koch brothers. By contrast, cited an Energy Department analyst who confirmed that Obama was correct when he said that wind energy is less expensive than fossil fuels in the regions of the country that he mentioned.

During his January 13 State of the Union address, Obama highlighted the advancements renewable energy has made since he took office, citing the low price of wind energy as an example: "In fields from Iowa to Texas, wind power is now cheaper than dirtier, conventional power."

The Post's Fact Checker conceded that the "cost of wind power surely is lower in those states than in others," but stated that "the average price of coal and natural gas ... is still cheaper than newer sources like wind," citing an analysis from Bloomberg New Energy Finance about the average cost of electricity nationwide (the Post attributed the stat to the Dallas Morning News).

But The Post never actually addressed whether Obama was correct when he said that wind power is less expensive than fossil fuels in parts of Iowa and Texas.

By contrast, noted that Obama "rightly points out that in some areas of states like Iowa and Texas, wind energy is already cheaper than energy produced by coal or natural gas." Indeed, an analysis from investment banking firm Lazard released last November found that the high-end estimate for the unsubsidized cost of wind energy in Texas and the Midwest ($51 per megawatt hour) is less than the low-end estimate for the cost of all fossil fuel-based forms of energy nationwide (the cheapest being gas combined cycle, with a low-end estimate of $52 per megawatt hour):

lazard wind

lazard wind

Obama's statement was also supported by an official from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), who said in an email to "Both our analysis and recent market trends suggest that wind is generally lowest in cost and most competitive in the Great Plains region of the country, roughly corresponding to 'Iowa to Texas.'" The EIA analyst noted that "wind is the low-cost source of power generation in the overnight hours in many states where it exists" and that wind energy has "out-compete[d] other sources in states such as Iowa and Texas during daytime hours." He also explained that when it comes to building new power production nationwide, "wind is generally in a competitive range with combined cycle [natural gas] and perhaps even lower cost than coal, on an unsubsidized basis." also cited a March 2015 article from the Dallas Morning News, which noted that "in Texas, the country's largest wind energy producer, renewable energy plans count among the cheapest options available."

The Post's Fact Checker also took issue with Obama's remarks by claiming he "overlook[ed] the impact of the federal tax credit that has driven much of the cost of wind power down." As purported evidence, the Post cited a report by the Institute of Political Economy at Utah State University and the research group Strata, without mentioning that either entity has received funding from the oil billionaire Koch brothers. The report was led by Randy Simmons, who is the former Charles G. Koch professor of political economy at Utah State and runs Utah State's "Koch Scholars" program. He is also a senior fellow at the Koch- and ExxonMobil-funded Property and Environment Research Center. According to the Center for Public Integrity, Strata received $653,000 from the Charles Koch Foundation in 2013 alone. Meanwhile, Utah State University received over $1.6 million from the Charles Koch Foundation between 2007 and 2013, according to data compiled by Greenpeace. Then in 2015, the university confirmed that its business school -- where the Institute of Political Economy resides -- would receive an additional $1.54 million from the Charles Koch Foundation, including $540,000 in salary and benefits for two tenure-track professors at the Institute of Political Economy.

But while The Post claimed that Obama overlooked the impact of wind subsidies -- the focus of the Koch-linked report it cited -- The Post itself overlooked the fact that fossil fuels have historically received far more in government subsidies and handouts than wind or other forms of renewable energy, particularly in the beginning stages of those industries' expansion. A 2011 analysis by Management Information Services for the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) found that a whopping 70 percent of the energy subsidies handed out between 1950 and 2010 were given to the oil, natural gas, and coal industries, compared to only nine percent for renewables like wind and solar. And an analysis from DBL Investors shows how the oil and gas industries received far more in subsidies than renewables during the first 30 years of those subsidies' existence:


The Post's Fact Checker did mention that experts predict unsubsidized wind energy will become cost-competitive with fossil fuels nationwide within the next decade. But only managed to explain that the President was right when he noted that wind is already cheaper than fossil fuels in many parts of the country.

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Environment & Science, Energy
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