The Economics of Rocket and Spacecraft Development: What Followed From Obama’s Push for Competition

A.  Introduction

The public letter was scathing, and deliberately so.  Made available to the news media in April 2010 just as President Obama was preparing to deliver a major speech on his administration’s strategy to put the US space program back on track, the letter bluntly asserted that the new approach would be “devastating”.  Signed by former astronauts Neil Armstrong (Commander of Apollo 11, and the first man to walk on the moon), Jim Lovell (Commander of the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission), and Eugene Cernan (Commander of Apollo 17, and up to now the last man to walk on the moon), the letter said that reliance on commercially contracted entities to carry astronauts to orbit “destines our nation to become one of second or even third rate stature”.  The three concluded that under such a strategy, “the USA is far too likely to be on a long downhill slide to mediocrity”.

What was the cause of this dramatic concern?  Upon taking office in January 2009, the Obama administration concluded that a thorough review was needed of NASA’s human spaceflight program.  Year’s earlier, following the breakup of the Columbia Space Shuttle as it tried to return from orbit – with the death of all on board – the Bush administration had decided that the Space Shuttle was not only expensive but also fundamentally unsafe to fly.  Due to its cost while still flying the Shuttle, NASA did not have the funds to develop alternatives.  The Bush administration therefore decided to retire the then remaining Space Shuttles by 2010.  The Obama administration later added two more Space Shuttle flights to allow the completion of the International Space Station (ISS), but the final Space Shuttle flight was in 2011.  The Bush administration plan was that the funds saved by ending the Space Shuttle flights would be used to develop what they named the Constellation program.  Under Constellation, two new space boosters would be developed – Ares I to launch astronauts to the ISS in low earth orbit and Ares V to launch astronauts to the moon and possibly beyond.  A new spacecraft, named Orion, to carry astronauts on these missions would also be developed.

To fund Constellation, the Bush administration plan was also to decommission the ISS in 2015, just five years after it would be completed.  Work on the ISS had begun in 1985 – when Reagan was president -, the first flight to start its assembly was in 1998, and assembly was then expected to be completed in 2010 (in the end it was in 2011).  The total cost (as of 2010) had come to $150 billion.  But in order to fund Constellation, the Bush administration plan was to shut down the ISS just five years later, and then de-orbit it for safety reasons to burn it up in the atmosphere.

The Obama administration convened a high-level panel to review these plans.  Chaired by Norman Augustine, the former CEO of Lockheed Martin (and commonly referred to as the Augustine Commission), the committee issued its report in October 2009.  They concluded that the Constellation program was simply not viable.  Their opening line in the Executive Summary read “The U.S. human spaceflight program appears to be on an unsustainable trajectory.”  Mission plans (including the time frames) were simply unachievable given the available and foreseeable budgets.  There would instead be billions of dollars spent but with the intended goals not achieved for decades, if ever.  A particularly glaring example of the internal inconsistencies and indeed absurdities was that the Aries I rocket, being developed to ferry crew to the ISS, would not see its first flight before 2016 at the earliest.  Yet the ISS would have been decommissioned and de-orbited by then.

The Augustine Commission recommended instead to shift to contracting with private entities to ferry astronauts to orbit.  Such a program for the ferrying of cargo supplies to the ISS had begun during the Bush administration.  By 2009 this program was already well underway, and the first such flight, by SpaceX using its Falcon 9 rocket, was successfully completed in May 2012.  The commission also recommended that work be done to develop the technologies that could be used to determine how a new heavy-lift launch vehicle should best be designed.  For example, would it be possible to refuel vehicles in orbit?  If so, the overall size of the booster could be quite different, as there would no longer be a need to lift both the spacecraft and the fuel to send it on to the Moon or to Mars or to wherever, all on one launch.  And the commission then laid out a series of options for exploration that could be done with a new heavy-lift rocket (whether a new version of the Ares V or something else), including to the Moon, to Mars, to asteroids, and other possibilities.  It also recommended that the life of the ISS be extended at least to 2020.

And it was not just the Augustine Commission expressing these concerns.  Earlier, in a report issued in August 2009, the GAO stated that “NASA is still struggling to develop a solid business case … needed to justify moving the Constellation program forward into the implementation stage”.  It also noted that NASA itself, in an internal review in December 2008 (i.e. before Obama was inaugurated) had “determined that the current Constellation program was high risk and unachievable within the current budget and schedule”.  The GAO also noted that Ares I was facing important technical challenges as well (including from excessive vibration and from its long narrow design, where there was concern this might cause it to drift into the launch tower when taking off).  While it might well be possible to resolve these and other such technical challenges given sufficient extra time and sufficient extra money, it would require that extra time and extra money.

President Obama’s strategy, as he laid out in a speech at the Kennedy Space Center on April 15, 2010 (but which was already reflected in his FY2011 budget proposals that had been released in February), was built on the recommendations of the Augustine Commission.  The proposal that received the most attention was that to end the Ares I program and to contract instead with competing commercial providers to ferry crews to the ISS.  And rather than continue on the Ares V launch vehicle (on which only $95 million had been spent by that point, in contrast to $4.6 billion on Ares I), the proposal was first to spend significant funds (more than $3 billion over five years) to develop and test relevant new technologies (such as in-orbit refueling) to confirm feasibility before designing a new heavy-lift launch vehicle.  That design would then be finalized no later than 2015.  Third, work would continue on the Orion spacecraft, but with a focus on its role to carry astronauts beyond Earth orbit, as well as to serve as a rescue vehicle should one be needed in an emergency for the ISS.  Fourth, the life of the ISS itself would be extended to at least 2020 from the Bush plan to close and destroy it in 2015.  And fifth, Obama proposed that the overall NASA budget be increased by $6 billion over five years over what had earlier been set.

While the proposal was well received by some, there were also those who were vociferously opposed – Armstrong, Lovell, and Cernan, for example, in the letter quoted at the top of this post.  But perhaps the strongest, and most relevant, opposition came from certain members of congress.  Congress would need to approve the new strategy and then back it with funding.  Yet several key members of Congress, with positions on the committees that would need to approve the new plans and budgets, were strongly opposed.  Indeed, this opposition was already being articulated in late 2009 and early 2010 as the direction the Obama administration was taking (following the issuance of the Augustine Commission report) was becoming clear.

Perhaps most prominent in opposition was Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama, who repeatedly spoke disparagingly of the commercial competitors (meaning SpaceX primarily) who would be contracted to ferry astronauts to the ISS.  In a January 29, 2010, statement, for example (released just before the FY2011 budget proposals of the Obama administration were to be issued), Shelby asserted “China, India, and Russia will be putting humans in space while we wait on commercial hobbyists to actually back up their grand promises”.  Shelby called it “a welfare program for amateur rocket companies with little or nothing to show for the taxpayer dollars they have already squandered”.

Shelby was not alone.  Other senators and congressmen were also critical.  Most, although not all, were Republicans, and one might question why those who on other occasions would articulate a strong free-market position, would on this issue argue for what was in essence a socialist approach.  The answer is that under the traditional NASA process, much of the taxpayer funds that would be spent (many billions of dollars) would be spent on federal facilities and on contractors in their states or congressional districts.  The Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, was the lead NASA facility for the development of the Ares I and Ares V rockets, and Senator Shelby of Alabama was proud of the NASA money he had directed to be spent there.  Senators and congressmen from other states with the main NASA centers involved or with the major contractors (Texas, Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana, Utah) were also highly critical of the Obama initiative to introduce private competition.

The outcome, as reflected in the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 (passed in October 2010) and then in the FY2011 budget passed in December, was a compromise.  The administration was directed basically to do both.  The legislation required that a new heavy-lift rocket be designed immediately, with the key elements similar to and taken from the Ares V design (and hence employ the same contractors as for the Ares V).  It was eventually named the Space Launch System (or SLS – or as wags sometimes called it “the Senate Launch System” since the key design specifics were spelled out and mandated in the legislation drafted in the Senate).  It also directed that the cost should be no more than $11.5 billion and that it would be in operation no later than the end of 2016.  (As we will discuss below, the SLS has yet to fly and is unlikely to before 2022 at the earliest, and over $32 billion will have been spent on it before it is operational.)

The compromise also allowed the administration to proceed with the development of commercial contracts to ferry astronauts to the ISS, but with just $307 million allocated in FY2011 rather than the $500 million requested.  For FY2011 to FY 2015, only $2,725 million of funding was eventually approved by congress, or well less than half of the $5,800 million originally requested by the Obama administration in 2010 for the program.  As a result, the commercial crew program, as it was called, was delayed by several years.  The first substantial contracts (aside from smaller amounts awarded earlier to various contractors to develop some of the technologies that would be used) were signed only in August 2012.  At that time, $440 million was awarded to SpaceX, $460 million to Boeing, and $212.5 million to Sierra Nevada Corporation, to develop the specifics of their competing proposals to ferry astronauts to the ISS.

The primary contracts were then awarded to SpaceX and to Boeing in September 2014.  NASA agreed to pay SpaceX a fixed total of $2,600 million, and Boeing what was supposed to be a fixed total of $4,200 million (but with an additional $287.2 million added later, when Boeing said they needed more money).  Each of these contracts would cover the full costs of developing a new spacecraft (Crew Dragon for SpaceX and Starliner for Boeing) and then of flying them on the rockets of their choice (Falcon 9 for SpaceX and the Atlas V for Boeing) to the ISS for six operational missions (with an expected crew of four on each, although the capsules could hold up to seven).  The contracts would cover not only the cost of the rockets used, but also the costs of an unmanned test flight to the ISS and then a manned test flight to the ISS with a crew of two or more.  If successful, the six operational missions would then follow.

We now know what has transpired in terms of missions launched.  While the SLS is still to fly on even a first test mission (the current schedule is for no earlier than November 2021, but many expect it will be later), SpaceX successfully carried out an unmanned test of its spacecraft (Crew Dragon) in a launch and docking with the ISS in March 2019, a successful test launch with a crew of two to the ISS in May 2020, an operational launch with a NASA crew of four to the ISS in November 2020, and a second operational launch with a NASA crew of four to the ISS in April 2021 (where I have included under “NASA” crews from space agencies of other nations working with NASA).  The April 2021 mission also reused both a Crew Dragon capsule from an earlier mission (the one used on the two-man test flight in May 2020) and a previously used first stage booster for the Falcon 9 rocket.  Previously, out of caution, NASA would only allow a new Falcon 9 booster to be used on these manned flights – not one that had been flown before.  They have now determined that the reused Falcon 9 boosters are just as safe.

As I write this, the plans are for a third operational flight of the Crew Dragon, again carrying four NASA astronauts to the ISS, in late October or November 2021.  And as I am writing this, SpaceX has just launched (on September 15) a private, all-civilian, crew of four for a three-day flight in earth orbit.  They are scheduled to return on September 18.  And there may be a second such completely commercial flight later in 2021.

Boeing, in contrast, has not yet been successful.  While Boeing was seen as the safe, traditional, contractor (in contrast to the “amateur hobbyists” of SpaceX), and received substantially higher funding than SpaceX did for the same number of missions, its first, unmanned, test launch in December 2019, failed.  The upper stage of the rocket burned for too long due to a software issue, and the spacecraft ended up in the wrong orbit.  While they were still able to bring the spacecraft back to earth, later investigations found that there were a number of additional, possibly catastrophic, software problems.  After a full investigation, NASA called for 61 corrective actions, a number of them serious, to be taken before the spacecraft is flown again.

As I write this, there have been further delays with the Boeing Starliner.  After several earlier delays, a re-run of the unmanned test mission of the capsule was scheduled to fly on July 30, 2021.  However, on July 29, a newly arrived Russian module attached to the ISS began to fire its thrusters due to a software error, causing the ISS to start to spin.  While it was soon brought under control, the decision was made to postpone the flight test of the Boeing Starliner by a few days, to August 3, to allow time for checks to the ISS to make sure there was no serious damage from the Russian module mishap.  But then, in the countdown on August 3 problems were discovered in the Starliner’s control thrusters.  Many of the valves were stuck.  On August 13, the decision was made to take down the capsule from the booster rocket, return it to a nearby facility, confirm the cause of the problem (it appears that Teflon seals failed), and fix it.  There will now be a delay of at least two months, and possibly into 2022.

Thus the unmanned test flight of the Boeing Starliner will only be flown at least two and a half years (and possibly three years, or more) after the successful unmanned test flight of the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule in March 2019.  And as noted before, Boeing was supposed to be the safe choice of a traditional defense and space contractor, in contrast to the hobbyists at SpaceX.

While flight success is, in the end, the most important and easy to observe metric, also important is how much these alternative approaches cost.  That will be the focus of this post.  The cost differences are huge.  While not always easy to measure (this will be discussed below), the differences in the costs between the traditional NASA contracting and the more commercial contracts that paid for the services delivered are so large that any uncertainty in the cost figures is swamped by the magnitude of the estimated differences.

We will first look at the costs of developing and flying the principal heavy-lift rockets now operational in the US.  While they have different capabilities, which I fully acknowledge, the differences in the costs cannot be attributed just to that.  We will then look at the costs of developing and flying the three capsule spacecraft we now have (or will soon have) in the US:  the SpaceX Crew Dragon, the Boeing Starliner (more properly, the Boeing CST-100 Starliner), and the Orion being built under contract to NASA by Lockheed Martin.  The differences in capabilities here are also significant, but one cannot attribute the huge cost differences just to that.

This blog post is relatively long, with a good deal of discussion on the underlying basis of the estimates for the various figures as well as on the capabilities (and comparability) of the various rockets and spacecraft reviewed.  For those not terribly interested in such aspects of the US space program, the basic message of the post can be seen simply by focussing on the charts.  They are easy to find.  And the message is that NASA contracting on the commercial basis that the Obama administration proposed for the carrying of crew to the ISS (and which the Bush administration had previously initiated for the carrying of cargo to the ISS) has been a tremendous success.  SpaceX is now routinely delivering both cargo and crews to orbit, and at a cost that is a small fraction of what is found with the traditional NASA approach.  One sees this in both the development and operational costs, and the differences are so large that one cannot attribute this simply to differing missions and capabilities.

B.  The Rockets Reviewed and Their History

The chart at the top of this post shows the cost per kilogram to launch a payload to low earth orbit by the primary heavy-lift launch vehicles currently being used (or soon to be used) in the US.  This is only for the cost of an additional rocket launch – what economists call the marginal cost.  The cost to develop the rocket itself is not included here, as that cost is fixed and largely the same whether there is only one launch of the vehicle or many.  We will look at those development costs separately in the discussion below.

To get to the cost per kilogram, one must start with what each rocket is capable of carrying to low earth orbit and then couple this with the (marginal) cost of an additional launch.  We will review all that below.  But first a note on the data underlying these figures.

For a number of reasons, comparable data on the costs and even the maximum lift capacities of these various rockets are not readily available.  One has to use a wide range of sources.  Among the primary ones I used (for both the payload capacities and the costs of the rockets discussed in this and in the following sections, as well as for the costs for the spacecraft discussed further below), one may look here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

There will, however, be issues with the precision of any such estimates, in particular for the costs.  For a number of reasons, such comparisons (again especially of the costs) are difficult to make.  Several of those reasons are discussed in an annex at the end of this post.  Due to the difficulties in making such comparisons, differences in costs per kilogram of payload lifted to orbit of 10 or 20% certainly, but also even of 40 or 50%, should not be viewed as necessarily significant.  However, we will see that the differences in costs between developing and launching rockets and spacecraft with the traditional NASA approach and the approach based on competition that Obama introduced to manned space flight are far greater than this.  Indeed, we will see that the costs are several times higher, and often even an order of magnitude or more higher.  Differences of such magnitude are certainly significant.

To start, rockets differ in capabilities, and one must adjust for that.  The most important measure is lifting capacity – how many kilograms of payload can be carried into orbit:

The rockets to be examined here are limited to US vehicles (hence none of those from China, Russia, Europe, and elsewhere) and to heavier boosters sizeable enough to carry manned vehicles.  Ares I is included even though it flew on only one test flight (and only a partial one at that) before its development was ended, in order to show how its capacity would have compared to other launchers.  It would be similar in size to the alternatives.  But its (incomplete) development costs were already more than an order of magnitude higher than that of the Falcon 9, as we will discuss below.

The other boosters to be examined here are the Falcon 9 (of which there are two versions – with the first stage booster either expended or recovered), the Atlas V and Delta IV Heavy (both made by the United Launch Alliance – a 50/50 joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin that, when formed in 2006, had a monopoly on heavy launch vehicles in the US), the Space Launch System (still to be tested in its first launch), and the Falcon Heavy (of which there are also two versions, with the first stage boosters either expendable or recoverable).

As noted, the Falcon 9 can be flown in two versions – with the first stage booster either expended (allowed to fall into the ocean) or recovered.  Since the first stage of a rocket will normally be the most expensive part of a rocket, Elon Musk sought to develop a booster where the first stage could be recovered.  And he did.  (He also, for a time, sought to recover similarly the second stage of the Falcon 9, but ultimately abandoned this.  The cost of a second stage is less, so there is less benefit in recovering it, while the difficulty, and hence the cost, is greater.  He eventually concluded it was not worth it.)

The Falcon 9 first stage is recovered by flying it back either to the launch site or to a floating platform in the ocean, where it slows down and lands by re-igniting its engines.  The videos can be spectacular.  But this requires that a portion of the fuel be saved for the landing, and hence the maximum payload that can be carried is less.  However, the cost savings (discussed below) are such that the cost per kilogram to orbit will be lower.

I have not been able to find, however, a precise figure for what the payload penalty will be when the first stage is recovered.  SpaceX may be keeping this confidential.  SpaceX does provide, at its corporate website, a figure for the maximum payload on a Falcon 9.  It is 22,800 kilograms, but this has been interpreted to be what the payload will be when the first stage uses 100% of its fuel to launch the payload into orbit, with that booster then allowed to fall into the ocean.  But a figure for what the maximum payload can be when the booster is recovered is not provided.  The Wikipedia entry for the Falcon 9, for example, only provides a figure for what was a heavy load on an actual launch (with the booster recovered).  This does not mean this would be the maximum possible load.

For the calculations here, I therefore used the payload capacity figures for the Falcon Heavy, taking the ratio between the payload that can be carried in the fully recoverable version to the payload in the expended version.  Elon Musk has indicated that this payload penalty on the Falcon Heavy is about 10%.  Applying this ratio to the Falcon 9 full capacity figure of 22,800 kg, and rounding down to 20,000 kg, should be a reasonable estimate of the maximum payload on the recoverable version of the rocket, and close enough for the purposes here.  The ratios for the Falcon Heavy and the Falcon 9 should be similar, as the first stage of the Falcon Heavy is essentially three first stages of the Falcon 9 strapped together (with the second stage the same in each), and the fuel that would be needed to be saved to allow for the recoveries and landings of the first stage boosters should be similar.

With this configuration where the Falcon Heavy is essentially three Falcon 9 first stage boosters strapped together, SpaceX was able to build an extremely large booster.  It is currently by far the largest operational such vehicle in the US stable, and indeed is currently the largest in the world.  The SLS will be larger if it becomes operational, but it is not at that point yet.  By building on the Falcon 9, the development costs of the Falcon Heavy were relatively modest, although Elon Musk has noted it turned out to be more complicated than they had at first thought it would be.  And with the three boosters that make up the first stage of Falcon Heavy similarly recoverable, one has even more spectacular videos of pairs of the boosters landing together back at the launch site (the third is recovered on a barge in mid-ocean). There is some penalty in the maximum payload weight that can be carried (about 10% as noted above), but the cost savings far exceed this (discussed below), leading to a cost per kilogram of payload that is almost a third less than when these first-stage boosters are not recovered.

The Atlas V and the Delta IV Heavy are both produced by the United Launch Alliance, the 50/50 joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed.  Its creation in 2006 by bringing together into one company the sole two providers in the US at that time of large launch vehicles was questioned by many.  The first launch of the Falcon 9 came only later, in 2010.  But the primary customer was and is the US Department of Defense, and they approved it (and may indeed have encouraged it) as their primary concern was to preserve an assured ability to fly their payloads into orbit rather than the cost of doing so.

The Atlas series of vehicles were brought to the ULA from Lockheed (via a string of corporate mergers – the Atlas rocket was first developed by General Dynamics), and have a long history stretching back to the initial Mercury orbital launches (of Glenn in 1962) and indeed even before that.  The models have of course changed completely over the years, and importantly since the year 2000 with the first launch of the Atlas III model which used Russian-made RD-180 engines.  The RD-180 engines are now being phased out for national security reasons, but the planned follow on rocket (named the Vulcan, or more properly the Vulcan Centaur), has yet to fly.  The Vulcan will use engines made by Blue Origin, and there have been delays in getting those engines delivered for the initial test flights.

There are ten different models of the Atlas V that have flown, and several more were available if a customer was interested.  For the charts here, version #551 of the Atlas V has been used, as it has the heaviest lift capacity of the various versions and has flown at least ten times (as I write this in September 2021).

The Delta rocket also has a long history, with variants dating back to 1960.  it was originally built by Douglas Aircraft, which after a merger became McDonnell-Douglas, which was later acquired by Boeing.  Boeing then brought the Delta to the United Launch Alliance.  There are also several variants of Delta rockets that have been available, but the Delta IV Heavy version will be used in the charts here as it can carry the heaviest payload among them.  Until the first launch of the Falcon Heavy in 2018, the Delta IV Heavy had the greatest lift capacity of any rocket in the US stable.  But as one can see in the chart, the payload capacity of the Falcon Heavy is double that of the Delta IV Heavy.

The Space Launch System (SLS) dates to 2011, when the basic design was announced by NASA.  Key design requirements had been set, however, in congressional legislation drafted originally in the Senate and incorporated into the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 that was signed into law in October 2010.  As was discussed above, NASA was instructed by Congress to develop the SLS and in doing so that it should use the rocket technology that had been developed for the Space Shuttle and which would have been used for the Ares V.  The Space Shuttle technology dates from the 1970s with a first flight of the Shuttle in 1981.  Its main rocket engines (three at the rear of the Orbiter) were the RS-25, which burns liquid hydrogen and oxygen.  The Shuttle also had two solid rocket boosters attached, each of four segments.

The SLS design, following the mandates of Congress, uses four RS-25 engines in its core first stage.   Two solid rocket boosters, of the same type also as used for the Shuttle, are attached on the sides (although with five segments each rather than the four for the Shuttle).  The second stage of the SLS will use the RL-10 liquid-fueled engine – a design that dates to the 1950s and first flew in 1959.  Indeed, for the initial (Block 1) model of the SLS, the second stage is in essence the second stage that has been used for some time on the Delta III and Delta IV boosters.

The SLS design shares many elements with the Ares V booster that would have been part of the Constellation program begun by the Bush administration.  The first stage booster of the Ares V would have had five RS-25 rockets in its core (versus four of the RS-25s in the SLS) and also with two of the strap-on solid rocket boosters from the Shuttle (but with 5.5 segments each instead of the five on the SLS).  While work on the Ares V never progressed far beyond its design, with NASA spending only $95 million on it before it was canceled, the SLS is very much based on the design of the Ares V and with similar ties to the Space Shuttle.

The engine technologies have of course evolved substantially over time, with upgrades and refinements as more was learned.  And using existing designs should certainly have saved both time and money.  But neither happened.  Congress directed that the SLS should be operational by 2016, and early NASA plans were for it to be flying by 2017, but as of this writing it has yet to have had even a test flight.  As noted previously, the first test launch is currently scheduled for November 2021, but many expect this will be further delayed.  And as we will see below, despite the use of previously developed technology for most of the key components (in particular the rocket engines), the costs have been quite literally astronomical.

Finally, the Ares I booster is included here for comparison purposes.  Its first stage would have been the same solid rocket booster used for the Space Shuttle (but just one booster rather than two, and of five segments), while the second stage would have used a version of the J-2 liquid-fueled engine.  This engine was originally developed in the early 1960s for use in the upper stages of the Saturn 1B and Saturn V rockets then being developed for the Apollo program.  There have been numerous upgrades since, of course, and some would say the J-2 version developed for the Ares I (named the J-2X) was close to a new design.

There was only one, partial, test flight of the Ares I before the program was canceled.  That flight, in October 2009, was of the first stage only (the solid rocket booster derived from the Space Shuttle), with just dummies of the second stage and payload to simulate the flight dynamics of that profile.  It reached a height (as planned) of less than 30 miles.  While deemed a “success” by NASA, the launch caused substantial unanticipated damage to the launch pad, plus the parachutes designed to return the first stage partially failed.

As will be discussed below, while the Ares I never became operational, the amount spent on its (partial) development had already far exceeded that of comparable rockets.  It was also facing substantial technical issues that could be catastrophic unless solved (including from excessive vibration and a concern that with its tall, thin, design it might drift into the launch tower on lift-off).  Finally, as noted before, the rocket’s mission would be to ferry astronauts to the ISS, yet under the Bush administration’s plan to abandon and de-orbit the ISS by 2015 (in order to free up NASA funds for the Constellation program), the first operational flight (as forecast in 2009) would not be until 2016.  Nonetheless, Obama’s decision to cancel the program was severely criticized.

C.  The Cost of Developing the Rockets

In considering the costs of any vehicle, including rockets and spacecraft, one should distinguish between the cost of developing the technology and the cost of using it.  Development costs are upfront and fixed, regardless of whether one then uses the rocket for one launch or many.  Operational costs per launch are then a measure of what it would cost for an additional launch – what economists call the marginal cost.

While the concepts are clear, the distinction can be difficult to estimate.  The costs may often be mixed, and one must then try to separate out what the costs of just the launches were from the cost of developing the system.  But reasonable estimates are in general possible.

To start with development costs:

First, in the case of Ares I all the costs incurred were development costs as there were no operational launches.  Figures on this are provided in the NASA budget documents for each fiscal year.  A total of $4.6 billion was spent on the program between fiscal years 2005 (when the program was launched) and 2010 (when it was canceled).

But at that point the program was far from operational.  The first operational flight was not going to be before 2016 at the earliest, and very likely later.  To make the comparison similar to the costs of other rocket programs (which have reached operational status), one should add an estimate of what the additional costs would have been to reach that same point.  But there is only a partial estimate of what those additional development costs would have been.  As is standard, the FY2010 NASA budget had five-year cost forecasts (i.e. for the next four years following the request for the upcoming fiscal year) for each of the budget line items, and at that point the forecast was that the Ares I program would cost an additional $8.1 billion in fiscal years 2011 through 2014.  Furthermore, this expected expense of over $2 billion per year would not be declining over time but in fact rising a bit, and would likely continue for several years more at a similar rate or higher until Ares I was operational.

Even leaving out what the additional development costs would have been beyond FY2014 (probably an additional $2 billion per year for several more years), the expected costs through FY2014 would have already been huge, at $12.7 billion.  This is incredibly high for what should have been a relatively simple rocket (based on components that were already well used), although we will see similarly high costs in the development of the SLS.  Why they are so high is difficult to understand, particularly as the Ares I is a booster whose first stage is simply one of the solid rocket boosters from the Shuttle program (and indeed initially physically taken from the excess stock of such boosters left over at the end of the Shuttle program, although modified with an extra segment added in the middle to bring it to five segments from four).  And the second stage was to be built around an upgraded model of the old J-2 engine.

In sharp contrast to these costs for the Ares I, the development costs of the similarly sized Falcon 9 rocket as well as the far larger Falcon Heavy are tiny, at just $300 million and $500 million respectively.  Are those figures plausible?  Since SpaceX is not a publicly listed company, its financial statements are not published.  However, it does have funders (both banks and others providing loans, as well as those taking a private equity position) so financial information is made available to them.  While confidential, it often leaks out.  Plus there are public statements that Elon Musk and others have made.  And importantly, as a start-up founded in 2002, it was a small company without access to much in the way of funding in the period.  They could not have spent billions.

One should acknowledge, however, as Elon Musk repeatedly has, that NASA provided financial assistance at a critical point.  SpaceX, Tesla, and Elon Musk personally, were all running low on cash in 2006, were burning through it quickly, and would soon be out of funds.  Then, in late 2006, NASA awarded SpaceX a $278 million contract under its new COTS (Commercial Orbital Transportation Services) program, to be disbursed as identified milestones were reached.  SpaceX was among more than 20 competitors for funds under this program, with SpaceX and one other (Orbital Sciences, with its own launch vehicle and spacecraft) winning NASA support.  The funding to SpaceX was later raised to $396 million (with additional milestones added) and was used to support the development of the Falcon 9 rocket, of the original version of the Dragon capsule to ferry cargo to the ISS, and the cost then to fly three demonstration flights (later collapsed to two) showing that the systems worked.  The second (and final) demonstration mission was a fully successful launch in May 2012 of the Falcon 9 carrying the Dragon capsule with cargo for the ISS, which successfully docked with the ISS and later returned to earth.  Following this, NASA has contracted with SpaceX for a series of cargo resupply missions to the ISS under follow-on contracts (under CRS, for Commercial Resupply Services) where it is paid for each successful mission.  As of this writing, SpaceX is now at the 23rd flight under this program.

NASA funds were important.  But they were only partial and not large, at less than $400 million to support the development of the Falcon 9, the Dragon capsule for cargo, and the initial demonstration flights.  They are consistent with a cost of developing the Falcon 9 alone of about $300 million.

The specific figure of $300 million to develop the Falcon 9 comes from a statement Elon Musk made in May 2011 on SpaceX’s history to that point.  He wrote that total SpaceX expenditures up to that point had been “less than $800 million”, with “just over $300 million” for the development of the Falcon 9.  The rest was for the development of the Dragon spacecraft (used to deliver cargo to the ISS) for $300 million, the cost of developing and testing in five flights SpaceX’s initial rocket the Falcon 1 (which had a single Merlin engine newly developed by SpaceX – the Falcon 9 uses nine Merlin engines), the costs of building launch sites for the Falcon rockets at Cape Canaveral, Vandenberg, and Kwajalein in the Pacific, as well as the cost of building all the corporate manufacturing facilities for the Falcon rockets and the Dragon.  Musk noted that the financial accounts are confirmed by external auditors, as they would be for any sizeable firm.

Separately, in 2017 a Senior Vice President of SpaceX (Tim Hughes), in testimony to Congress, noted that the development cost of Falcon 9 had been $300 million and $90 million for the earlier Falcon 1 rocket, and that NASA had independently verified these figures (in the report here, as updated).

The $300 million cost estimate looks plausible.  Unlike NASA (as well as firms such as Boeing), as a new start-up SpaceX simply would not and did not have the funding to spend much more.  But even if it were several times this, it would still be far less than what the cost of the similarly sized Ares I had been.

The estimate of $500 million to develop the Falcon Heavy also comes from statements made by Musk.  It is also plausible.  As noted above, the Falcon Heavy is basically a set of three Falcon 9 first-stage boosters strapped together, topped by a second stage (as well as payload fairing) that is the same as that on the Falcon 9.  Musk has noted that it was not as easy to do develop the Falcon Heavy as they had initially expected (there are many complications, including the new aerodynamics of such a design), but even at $500 million the cost is a bargain compared to what NASA has spent to develop boosters.

The Space Launch System (SLS) has yet to fly.  As noted before, this will take place no earlier than November 2021, but many expect there will be further delays.  Furthermore, the plan is for only one test flight to be made.  It is not clear what will happen if this test flight is not successful.

One has in NASA budget documents how much has been spent each year for the SLS thus far, and what is anticipated will be required for the next several years.  A total of $26.3 billion will have been spent through FY2021 (i.e. to September 30, 2021).  But the SLS is not yet operational, and the NASA budgets do not provide a breakdown between the cost of developing the SLS and the cost of launching it.  And there is not a clear distinction between the two.  Indeed, even the initial test flight has been labeled the Artemis 1 mission.  It will not be manned, but it will carry the Orion spacecraft (also being tested) on a month-long flight that will take it to the moon, go into lunar orbit, and then leave lunar orbit to return to earth with a splashdown and recovery of the Orion.

If successful, the second launch of the SLS will not be until September 2023 at the earliest.  While this flight would be manned and would loop around the Moon, some, at least, consider it also a test flight – testing all the systems under the conditions of a crew on board.

In part this is semantics, but treating the period until the end of FY2023 as the SLS still in the development phase, the total NASA is expected to have spent developing the SLS will be $32.4 billion.  While its payload capacity is 50% larger than that of the Falcon Heavy, it would have cost 65 times as much to bring it to the point of being operational.  While there are of course important differences, it is difficult to understand why the development of the SLS will have cost 65 times, and possibly more, than the cost of developing the Falcon Heavy.  It is especially difficult to understand as the rocket engines (the main cost for a booster) of the SLS are models used on the Space Shuttle, the strap-on solid rockets are also from the Space Shuttle, and the RL10 engine used on the second stage is derived from that used on earlier US rockets, dating all the way back to the 1950s.

D.  The Cost of Launching the Rockets

Once developed, there is a cost for each launch.  One wants to know the pure marginal cost of an additional launch, excluding all of the development costs, as those costs are in the past and will be the same regardless of what is now done with the newly developed rocket (economists refer to those past costs as sunk costs).

In practice the costs can be difficult to separate.  For private, commercial, vehicles, there may be some public information on what the firm providing the launch services is charging, but the price being charged for any specific flight is often treated as private and confidential, where the agreed upon price was reached through a negotiations process.  And the price paid will presumably include some margin above the pure marginal costs to help cover (when summed across all the launches that will be done) the original cost of developing the rockets plus some amount for profits.  It is even more difficult to determine for the SLS, as one only has what is published in the NASA budget documents for the amount being spent on the overall SLS program, where that total combines the cost of both developing and then launching the vehicle.  NASA has not provided a break-down, and deliberately so.  But one does have in the budget numbers a year-by-year breakdown, which one can use as the development costs (for the initial version of the SLS) will largely be incurred before the vehicle becomes operational, and the operational costs after.  This will be used below.

Even with such provisoes, reasonable estimates of the costs are so hugely different that the basic message is clear:

SpaceX is most transparent on its costs.  Standard prices are given on its corporate website, of $62 million for a Falcon 9 launch and $90 million for a Falcon Heavy.  The site does not specify whether these are for the expendable or recoverable versions, but based on other information, it appears that the $62 million for the Falcon 9 reflects the cost of an expendable Falcon 9, while the $90 million for the Falcon Heavy is for the recoverable version.  The $62 million for the Falcon 9 is similar to what was charged in the early years for the Falcon 9 before the ability to recover its first stage booster was developed.  And Elon Musk has said that the cost of the fully expendable version of the Falcon Heavy maxes out at $150 million, which implies that the $90 million figure shown on its website is for the version where all three of the first stage boosters are recovered.

The $35 million figure for the cost of the Falcon 9 when its first stage is recovered is then an estimate based on a $62 million cost which is assumed to apply when the first stage cannot be recovered.  In an interview in 2018, Musk said that the cost of the first stage booster is about 60% of the cost of a Falcon 9 launch, with 20% for the second stage, 10% for the payload fairing, and 10% for the operations of the launch itself.  These are clearly rounded numbers, but based on them, 60% of $62 million is $37 million, with the remaining 40% then $25 million.  Assuming, generously, that the cost to refurbish the booster for a new flight, plus some amortization cost (e.g. $3.7 million per flight if it can be reused for 10 flights), would be $10 million, then a cost per flight with recovered first stage boosters would be about $35 million per flight.  This is broadly consistent with a statement made by Christopher Couluris (director of vehicle integration at SpaceX) in 2020 that SpaceX can bring down the cost per flight to “below $30 million per launch”, and that “[The rocket] costs $28 million to launch it, that’s with everything”.  The $35 million figure for the recoverable version of the Falcon 9 might well be on the high side, but as was noted previously, I am deliberately erring on the high side for the cost estimates of SpaceX and on the low side for the NASA vehicles.

Thus a figure of $35 million per launch of a Falcon 9 with the first stage booster recovered is a reasonable (and likely high) figure for what the cost is to SpaceX for such a launch.  The $62 million “list price” on the SpaceX website would then include what would be a generous (in relative terms) profit margin for SpaceX, covering the development costs and more.  According to the SpaceX website, as I write this there have been 125 launches of the Falcon 9 since its first flight in 2010, on 85 of these they have recovered the first stage booster, and on 67 flights they have reflown a recovered booster.  The first successful recovery of a first stage booster was in December 2015.

Competition matters, and following the more transparent prices being charged customers by SpaceX for the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy (at least transparent in terms of “list prices”), ULA in December 2016 set up a website called “RocketBuilder.com” where anyone can work out which model of the Atlas V they will need.  There are ten models available, carrying payloads to low earth orbit from a low of 9,800 kg for the Atlas V model 401, up to 18,850 kg for the Atlas V model 551.  As noted before, we are examining the model 551 here as its payload is closest to what the Falcon 9 can carry (22,800 kg in the expendable version and 20,000 kg in the recoverable version).  The RocketBuilder.com website was “launched” with substantial publicity on December 1, 2016, accompanied by an announcement of substantial cuts in their prices for the Atlas V.  The CEO of ULA, Tony Bruno, announced that prices for the Atlas V model 401 would start at $109 million – down from $191 million before.  The price of the Atlas V model 551 would be $179 million when combined with a “full spectrum” of additional ULA services.

When set up, the RocketBuilder.com website included, importantly, what the list price would be of the Atlas V rocket model chosen.  Unfortunately, the RocketBuilder.com website as currently posted does not show this.  The reason might be that the CEO of ULA recently announced, on August 26, that ULA will take no more orders for flights of the Atlas V.  The Atlas V uses the Russian-made RD-180 rocket engine (two for each booster), and for national security reasons ULA has been required to cease purchasing these engines.  It must instead develop a new booster with key components all made in the US.  The RD-180 is an excellent engine technically, and is also both highly reliable and relatively inexpensive.  The decision to purchase it, from Russia, was made in the 1990s, and its first flight (on an Atlas III booster) was made in May 2000.  But political conditions have changed, and the most important client for ULA is the US Defense Department.

ULA has now received its final shipment of six RD-180 engines from Russia, and there will be a further 29 Atlas V flights (of all models, not just the model 551) up to the mid-2020s, using up the stock of RD-180 engines ULA has accumulated.  They have now all been booked.  ULA now hopes to launch next year, in 2022, its first test flight of the rocket it has been developing to replace both the Atlas V series as well as the Delta IV Heavy, which it has named the Vulcan Centaur.  It will use the new BE4 engines being developed by Blue Origin.  But that first test flight has been repeatedly delayed.  The first test flight was originally planned for 2019.

However, while the current RocketBuilder.com website of ULA no longer shows the cost to a customer of a launch of an Atlas V, one can find the former prices at an archived version of the RocektBuilder.com website.  While these are prices from a few years ago, they do not appear to have changed (at least as list prices).

The selection is much like that of finding the list price of a new car by going to the manufacturer’s website, selecting the model, adding various options, and then additional services one might want.  For the Atlas V, one can choose various levels of services, from a “Core” option to “Signature”, “Signature pro”, “Full Spectrum”, and “other customization”.  These appear to relate mostly to the division of responsibilities between ULA and the customer on various aspects of integrating the payload with the rocket.  ULA also offers two service packages it calls “Mission Insight” (things such as special access to ULA facilities) and “Rocket Marketing” (pre-launch events, press materials, videos, even “mission apparel”) that provide different levels of services and access.  It is sort of like the higher levels of benefits granted by airlines to their frequent flyers, although here they charge an explicit price for the package.

On the archived website, selecting the payload capacity and orbit that will lead to an Atlas V model 551 being required, the base cost (in 2016) shows as $153 million (as I write this in September 2021).  However, with a “Signature” level of service (which might be the base level required, as the “Core” option is not being allowed for some reason), the cost will be $163 million.  And $173 million for the “Full Spectrum” package.

The website also prominently displays a line for “ULA Added Value” which is then subtracted from that cost.  This does not reflect an actual price reduction by ULA, but rather savings that ULA claims the customer will benefit from if they choose an Atlas V launch by ULA.  The base (default) value of these savings that ULA claims the customer will benefit from is $65 million.  A breakdown shows this is made up of a claimed reduction in insurance costs of $12 million (what it otherwise would have been is not shown – just the “savings”), $23 million because ULA claims they will launch when it is scheduled to be launched and not several months later (which is more than a bit odd – one could produce whatever “savings” one wants by assuming some degree of delay in launch otherwise), and $30 million for what they call “orbit optimization”, which is a claim that the orbit they will place it in will lead to a lifetime for the satellite that is 17 rather than 15 years.

With such “savings” of $65 million (in a base case), ULA claims the actual cost for an Atlas V model 551 launch would not be $163 million, say (in the case considered above), but $65 million less, and thus only $98 million.  While still more than 50% higher, this brings it closer to the Falcon 9 list price of $62 million.  But this all looks like a marketing ploy – indeed rather like a juvenile charade – as that number depends on supposed savings from hypothetical levels.  The amount paid to ULA would still be the $163 million in this example.  And Elon Musk, among others, have questioned the assumptions.

The commonly cited $165 million cost of a launch of an Atlas V is therefore a reasonable estimate.  One should, however, keep in mind that this is both a “list price” subject to negotiation and that depending on the specific options chosen, the price could easily vary by $10 or $20 million around this.  The “savings” figures of ULA should not be taken too seriously, however.  There will be specific factors affecting costs and possible savings with any given payload, for other rockets as well as the Atlas V, and comparisons to some hypothetical will depend on whatever is chosen for that hypothetical.

ULA has provided less public material on the cost of a Delta IV Heavy launch.  This is in part as all of the customers, since the initial test flight in 2004, have been US government entities, and in particular the US Department of Defense.  There have only been 12 launches since that initial test flight, with ten of these classified missions for the Defense Department and two for NASA.  Furthermore, only three more are planned (two in 2022 and one in 2023), with ULA offering the planned Vulcan Centaur rocket (of which there will be a series of models that can carry progressively larger payloads, like for the Atlas V) as a substitute that can carry payloads of a similar size.

Both the Defense Department (especially) and NASA are less than fully transparent on what they have paid for these Delta IV Heavy launches.  The specific costs of the launches can be buried in the broader costs of the overall programs.  But the figures cited for a Delta IV heavy launch have typically been either $400 million (in a statement by ULA in 2015) or $350 million more recently.  It may well have been that, under pressure from the far lower costs of SpaceX, ULA has reduced its price over time.  For the purposes here, and erring on the side of being generous to ULA, I have used for the calculations a price of $350 million for a launch of an additional Delta IV Heavy.

The cost of an additional SLS launch is an estimated $2 billion, but there are conceptual as well as other issues with this figure.  First of all, NASA refused to release to Congress, nor to anyone else for that matter, what the cost of an additional launch would be.  Rather, one only had a single line item in the budget for the combined year-by-year cost of developing and testing the SLS, and also for building and then flying it.  That cost reached $3.1 billion in FY2020, $3.1 billion also in FY2021 and again in FY2022, and with it then forecast to decline slowly but remain at $2.8 billion in FY2026.  The SLS has not yet flown, and its first (uncrewed and the only planned) test flight is now scheduled for November 2021.  The first operational flight (with a crew of four) would not be until 2023 at the earliest, with the second in 2024 at the earliest.  The NASA plan is that there would then be one flight per year starting in 2026 and continuing on into the indefinite future.

But an estimate of the cost of an additional launch of the SLS leaked out, possibly due to an oversight but possibly not, in a letter sent to Congress in October 2019 from OMB. The letter addressed a range of budget issues for all agencies of the government, and set out the position of OMB and hence the administration on matters then being debated.  One was on use of the SLS.  Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama, who was then chair of the Senate Committee on Appropriations, had included in the language of the draft budget bill a requirement that NASA use the SLS for the launch of the planned NASA Europa Clipper mission (a satellite to Europa, a moon of Jupiter).  In a paragraph on page 7 of the letter, OMB recommended against this, as there is “an estimated cost of over $2 billion per launch for the SLS once development is complete”.  The letter noted that a commercial launch vehicle could be used instead for a far lower cost.

NASA later admitted (or at least would not deny) that this would be a reasonable estimate of the additional cost of such a launch.  And it is consistent with the budget forecasts that the SLS program would continue to require funding of close to $3 billion each year once flights had begun (at a pace of one per year, or less).  While the $3 billion is still greater than a figure of $2 billion per flight, the development costs for the SLS program will not end when the first SLS booster is operational.  The initial SLS, while a sizeable rocket, would still not have the lifting capacity that would be needed (under current NASA plans) for the planned lunar landings following the very first.

Specifically, the initial model of the SLS (scheduled to be tested this November 2021) is labeled the Block 1, and has a lifting capacity of 95,000 kg to low earth orbit.  The figures for the Block 1 are the ones that are being used in the charts in this post.  However, its capacity would only be sufficient for the first three flights (including the test flight), where the third flight would support the first landing of a crew on the moon under the Artemis program.  Following that, a higher capacity model, labeled the SLS Block 1B, would need to be developed, with a lifting capacity to low earth orbit of 105,000 kg.  To achieve that, a new second stage would be developed using four of the RS-10 rocket engines (versus a second stage with just a single RS-10 engine in the Block 1 version).

Under current NASA plans the Block 1B version of the SLS would then be used only for four flights.  For missions after that an even heavier lift version of the SLS would be needed, with two, more powerful, solid rocket boosters strapped on to the first stage (instead of the solid rocket boosters derived from those used on the Space Shuttle).  These would increase the lifting capacity to 130,000 kg to low earth orbit.  Part of the reason for developing the Block 2, with the new solid rocket side boosters, is that NASA will have used up by then its excess inventory of solid rocket booster segments (from the Space Shuttle program) for the planned launches of the Block 1 and Block 1B versions of the SLS (with one set in reserve).  Using up the existing inventory makes sense.  It should save money – although those savings are difficult to see given the expense of this program.  But that inventory is limited and will suffice only for up to eight flights of the SLS.  Hence the need for a replacement following that, which led to the design for the Block 2.

There will be development costs for the new second stage (with four RS-10 engines rather than one) for the Block 1B and then for the new, more powerful, strap-on solid rocket boosters for the Block 2.  What share of the approximately $3 billion that would be spent each year for the development of these new models of the SLS has not been broken out in the NASA budget – at least not in what has been made public.  But given that only very limited work has been done thus far on the new second stage for the Block 1B and even less on the new solid rocket boosters to be used for the Block 2, continuing development costs of $1 billion per year looks plausible.

At $2 billion per flight, the cost of a SLS launch is huge.  And this does not include any amortization to cover the development costs.  As noted above, those costs are expected to reach over $32 billion by FY2023.  The costs per launch for the other rockets shown on the chart, including the Falcon Heavy, will include in the prices charged some margin to cover the original development costs.  Commercial companies must do this to recover the costs of their investments.  That amount would be gigantic if added for the SLS in order to make its cost figure more comparable to that of the alternatives.

The question is how many flights of the SLS there will be before a more cost-effective alternative starts to be used.  Note that the alternative need not be limited to another giant rocket with a similar lift capacity.  The SLS itself will not be large enough to carry in a single launch all that will be required on the Artemis missions to the moon.  Rather, there would be separate launches on a range of boosters to carry what would be required.  Indeed, a NASA plan developed in 2019 for the launches that will be necessary through to 2028 as part of the Artemis missions to the Moon envisaged 37 separate launches, of which only 8 would be of the SLS (including its initial test launch).  One can break up the cargoes in many different ways.

While speculative, and really only for the point of illustration, one might assume that there will be perhaps 10 flights of the SLS before more cost-effective alternatives are pursued.  If so, then to cover the over $32 billion development cost one would need to add over $3 billion per flight to make the figures comparable to the costs of the other, commercial, launchers.  That is, the cost would then be over $5 billion per flight for the SLS rather than $2 billion.  This would, however, now be more of an average cost per flight than a true marginal cost, and speculative as we do not know how many flights of the SLS there will ultimately be (other than that it will not likely be many, given its huge cost).  Hence I have kept to the $2 billion figure, which is already plenty high.

Even at $2 billion per flight for the SLS, the cost is over 13 times the cost of a Falcon Heavy (in the version where the boosters are all thrown into the ocean rather than recovered).  The lift capacity of the SLS is 50% more, but it is difficult to imagine that that extra capacity could only be achieved at a cost (even ignoring the huge development cost) that is more than 13 times as much.

What has happened on the Europa Clipper mission provides a useful lesson.  Following a review and consultations with Congress, the Biden administration on July 23, 2021, announced that the Europa Clipper would be flown on a Falcon Heavy instead of the SLS.  The total contract amount with SpaceX for all the launch services is just $178 million (which will include the special costs of this unique mission).  There were several reasons to make the change, in addition to the savings from a cost of $178 million rather than $2 billion.  One is simply that by using the Falcon Heavy they will be able to launch in October 2024.  No SLS will be available by that time, nor indeed for several years after.  While a more direct route to Jupiter would have been possible with the heavier lift capacity of the SLS, the Europa Clipper would have had to be kept in storage for several years until a SLS rocket became available.  Separately, NASA discovered there would be a severe vibration issue due to the solid rocket boosters on the SLS, which the delicate spacecraft would have not have been able to handle.  To modify the Europa Clipper to make it able to handle those vibrations would have cost an additional $1 billion.

Finally, it is clear that the politics has changed.  Senator Shelby of Alabama has been the figure most insistent on requiring use of the SLS to launch the Europa Clipper.  With the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center (located in Huntsville, Alabama) the lead NASA office responsible for the SLS, a significant share of what is being spent on the SLS is being spent in Alabama.  And as Chair of the Senate Committee on Appropriations, Senator Shelby was in a powerful position to determine what the NASA budget would be.  But as a Republican, Senator Shelby lost the chairmanship when the Senate came under Democratic control in January 2021, plus he has announced he will not run for re-election in 2022. His influence now is thus not what it was before, and NASA can now pursue a more rational course on the launch vehicle.

E.  The Cost of Developing and Operating Spacecraft for Crews

NASA has also used its new, more commercial, contracting approach for the development and then use of private spacecraft to carry crew to the ISS.  This was indeed the proposal of President Obama in 2010 that was so harshly criticized, as discussed at the beginning of this post.  We now know how that has worked out:  SpaceX is flying crews to the ISS routinely, while Boeing, a traditional aerospace giant which was supposed to be the safe choice, has had issues.  We also can compare the costs under this program (for both SpaceX and Boeing) to that of developing the Orion spacecraft, where Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor operating under the more traditional NASA contracting approach.

There are, of course, important differences between the Orion and the spacecraft developed by SpaceX (its Crew Dragon, sometimes referred to as the Crew variant of the Dragon 2 as the capsule is a model derived from the original Dragon capsule used for ferrying cargo to the ISS), and by Boeing (which it calls the CST-100 Starliner, or just Starliner for short).  The SpaceX Crew Dragon and the Boeing Starliner will both be used to ferry astronauts to the ISS in low earth orbit, while the Orion is designed to carry astronauts to the Moon and possibly beyond.

But there are important similarities.  They are all capsules, use heat shields for re-entry, and can seat up to six astronauts (Orion) or seven (Crew Dragon and Starliner), even though NASA plans so far have always been for flights of just four astronauts each time.  They are all, in principle, reusable spacecraft. The interior volume (habitable space for the astronauts) is 9 cubic meters on Orion, 9.3 cubic meters on Crew Dragon, and 11 cubic meters on Starliner.

Orion will also be launched with a Service Model attached, which is being built by Airbus under contract to the European Space Agency.  This Service Module will have the fuel and engines required to help send Orion from earth orbit to the moon, and then fully into lunar orbit and back, as well as power (from solar panels) and supplies of certain consumable items required for longer space flight durations.  With this, Orion will be able to undertake missions of up to 21 days.  The self-contained Crew Dragon can carry out missions of up to 10 days, while the Starliner has the capacity of just 2 1/2 days – providing time to reach the ISS and later return, but not much else.

The cost of developing and building the European Service Module for Orion is being covered by the European Space Agency as its contribution to the program.  For better comparability to the Crew Dragon and Starliner spacecraft, the costs of the Service Module for Orion have been excluded from the cost of Orion in the charts below, as it is primarily the Service Module that will give the Orion the capabilities to go beyond earth orbit – capabilities that the Crew Dragon and Starliner do not have.  Had the costs of the Service Module been included (as the Orion is, after all, dependant on it), the disparity in costs between it and the Crew Dragon or Starliner would have been even larger.

The development of Orion began in 2004, as part of the Constellation program of the Bush administration, and has continued ever since.  NASA spent $1.4 billion on it in FY2020, again in FY2021, and the budget proposal is to do so again in FY2022.  Aside from an uncrewed flight in 2014 that was principally to test its heat shield design, the Orion has yet to fly.  Its first real test, still unmanned, will be as part of the first test flight of the SLS, which as noted above is now scheduled for November 2021.

SpaceX and Boeing were awarded the new form of competitive contracts by NASA to build their new spacecraft, demonstrate that they work (with a successful unmanned test flight to the ISS and then a manned flight test), and then fly them on six regular missions carrying NASA astronauts to the ISS.  The designs were by the companies – NASA was only interested in safe and successful flights ferrying crew to the ISS.

Each contractor could use whatever booster they preferred (SpaceX chose the Falcon 9 and Boeing the Atlas V), with the costs of those rocket launches included in the contracts.  The contract awards were announced in September 2014, several years later than the Obama administration had initially proposed due to lack of congressional funding.  The original contracts provided awards of up to $4.2 billion to Boeing and $2.6 billion to SpaceX, a discrepancy that reflected not that SpaceX would provide a lesser service, but rather that SpaceX offered in their contract bid a lower price.  Boeing was later granted an extra $287.2 million by NASA, in a decision that was criticized by the Office of the Inspector General of NASA, as Boeing (as well as SpaceX) had committed to provide the services agreed to under the contracts for the fixed, agreed upon, price.  Any cost overruns should then have been the responsibility of the contractor.  While Boeing argued it was not really a cost overrun under their contract, others (including the NASA Inspector General) disagreed.

Before the main contracts under the program had been approved, Boeing and SpaceX (along with others) had received smaller contracts to develop their proposals as well as to develop certain technologies that would be needed.  Including those earlier contracts (as well as the extra $287.2 million for Boeing), the total NASA would pay (provided milestones are reached) is $5,108.0 million to Boeing and $3,144.6 million to SpaceX.  For this, each contract provided that the new spacecraft would be developed and tested, with this then followed by six crewed flights of each to the ISS.  Thus the contracts include a combination of development and operational costs, which will be separated in the discussion below.

First, the development costs:

The estimates of the development costs for the SpaceX Crew Dragon and Boeing Starliner were made by subtracting, from the overall program costs, estimates made in the November 2019 report of the NASA Inspector General’s Office of the costs of the operational (flight) portions of the contracts.  Included in the development costs are the costs of the earlier contracts with SpaceX and Boeing to develop their proposals, as well as the extra $287.1 million that was later provided to Boeing.  Based on this, the total cost (to NASA) of supporting the development of the SpaceX Crew Dragon has been $1.845 billion, while the cost to NASA of the Boeing Starliner (assuming Boeing is ultimately successful in getting it to work properly) will be a bit over $3.0 billion.

The costs assume that the contractors will carry out their contractual commitments in full.  SpaceX so far has (the Crew Dragon is fully operational, and indeed SpaceX is now in its second operational flight, with a crew of four now at the ISS who are scheduled to return in November).  But Boeing has not.  As noted before, its initial unmanned test flight in December 2019 of the Boeing Starliner failed.  The planned re-try was on the pad in late July of this year and expected to fly within days when problems with stuck valves were discovered.  The Starliner had to be taken down and moved to a facility to identify the cause of the problem and fix it, with the flight not now expected until late this year at the earliest.  The extra costs are being borne by Boeing and have not been revealed, but in principle should be added to the $3,008 million cost figure in the chart above.  But they have been kept confidential, so we do not know what that addition would be.

In contrast to the cost to NASA of $1.845 billion for the SpaceX Crew Dragon and $3.0 billion to Boeing for its Starliner (under the new, competition-based, contractual approach), the amount NASA has spent on the Lockheed Orion spacecraft (under its traditional contractual approach) has been far higher.  More than $19.0 billion has already been spent through FY2021, and Orion is still in development.  Other than the early and partial test in 2014, the Orion has yet to be fully tested in flight.  The first such test is currently scheduled, along with the first test of the SLS, for later this year.  At best, it will not be operational until 2023, although more likely later.  Just adding what is anticipated will be needed to continue the development of Orion through FY2023, the total that NASA will spend on it will have reached $21.8 billion.  But the FY2023 cut-off date is in part arbitrary.  While the Orion capsule should be flying by then, there will still be additional expenditures to finalize its design and for further development.  These would add to the overall cost, but we do not know what those are expected to be.

Including costs just through FY2023, the cost of developing Orion is already close to 12 times what it has cost to develop the SpaceX Crew Dragon, and over 7 times what it has cost NASA to develop the Boeing Starliner.  While there are of course differences between the spacecraft, and it may be argued that the Orion is more capable, it is hard to see that such differences account for a cost that is 12 times that of the SpaceX Crew Dragon, or even 7 times the cost of the Boeing Starliner.  And as noted above, the greater capabilities of the Orion derive primarily from the European Service Module, whose costs are not included in the $21.8 billion figure for Orion.

The operational costs of the Orion will also be higher, using for comparability what it would be for a flight to earth orbit.  The most relevant figure is the cost per seat, and the calculations assume four seats will be filled on each flight (as NASA in fact plans, for both the missions to take astronauts to the ISS as well as for the Orion missions):

The costs include not only the cost of using the spacecraft itself, but also, and importantly, the cost of the rocket used to launch the spacecraft into orbit.  The costs of the rockets were included in the NASA contracts with SpaceX and Boeing, as the contracts were for the delivery of crews to the ISS.

The per-seat costs for the SpaceX Crew Dragon and Boeing Starliner contracts were calculated following the approach the NASA Inspector General used in its November 2019 report, using its estimate of the operational portion of the contracts with SpaceX and Boeing.  They come to $54.2 million per seat on the SpaceX Crew Dragon and $87.5 million on the Boeing Starliner (before rounding – in the Inspector General’s report one will see rounded figures of $55 million and $90 million, respectively).

The costs of building a new Orion capsule (which can then be reused to some degree) and flying it can be estimated from the announced NASA contracts with Lockheed for future missions.  In September 2019, NASA announced that it had awarded Lockheed an “Orion Production and Operations Contract”, where NASA would pay Lockheed for the Orion spacecraft for use on planned Artemis missions, but where the Orion spacecraft themselves would be reused to a varying degree that will rise over time.  The contracts for the Orions to be used in the first two flights (Artemis I and II) were signed some time before, and one can view these as part of the development costs (as these will be missions testing the Orion capsules).  The September 2019 announcement was that Lockheed would be paid a total of $2.7 billion for the next three missions (Artemis III, IV, and V), with re-use started to a limited degree.  Some high-value electronics, primarily, from the Orion used on the Artemis II mission would be re-used in the capsule for Artemis V.  Future costs would then fall further with greater re-use, but this should still be seen as speculative at this point.

Based on the $2.7 billion figure for the three Artemis missions following the first two, and with four seats on each of those three flights, the per-seat cost for the Orion alone would be $225 million.  To this one would need to add, for comparability, the cost of the rocket launcher.  The Artemis missions would use the SLS, which as discussed above, will cost $2.0 billion per flight.  This would add $500 million per seat (with the four seats per flight), bringing the total to $725 million per seat.

While that is indeed what the cost would be for the lunar missions, it is not an appropriate comparator to the costs of the Crew Dragon and Spaceliner capsules as the rockets they need are just for earth orbit.  For this reason, for the figure in the chart I have used the per-seat cost of what a launch on an Atlas V would be.  The Atlas V is the vehicle that will be used for the Boeing Starliner, and it has a comparable weight to the Orion (excluding the Orion European Service Module).  That per-seat cost, for a launch to earth orbit, would be $266.25 million.

Based on these figures, the operational cost per seat of an Orion capsule is almost 5 times what the per-seat cost is for the SpaceX Crew Dragon, and 3 times the cost on a Boeing Starliner.  These are huge differences.

F.  Conclusion

There was vehement opposition to Obama’s proposal to follow a more commercial approach to ferry crew to the ISS.  This came not only from former astronauts – who as pilots and engineers were taking a position on an issue they really did not know much about, but who were comfortable with the traditional approach.  Of more immediate importance, it came from certain politicians – in particular in the Senate.  The politicians opposed to the Obama proposals, led by Senator Shelby of Alabama, were also mostly (although not entirely) conservative Republican politicians who on other issues claimed to be in favor of free-market approaches.  Yet not here.

We now know that SpaceX delivered on the contracts, with now routine delivery of both cargo and crew to the ISS. Indeed, as I complete this post, an all-private crew of four have just returned from a three-day flight to earth orbit on a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft (launched on a Falcon 9).  The flight was a complete success, and showed that flights of people to orbit are no longer restricted to a very small number of large nation-states (specifically Russia, the US, and China).  NASA certainly played an important role in supporting the development of the Falcon 9 and the Crew Dragon, as discussed above, but these flights are now private.  If Senator Shelby and his (mostly) Republican colleagues had gotten their way, this never would have happened.  The hope that this would follow was, however, an explicit part of the plan when the Obama administration proposed that NASA contract with private providers to bring crew to the ISS.  And it has.

Boeing is not yet at the point that SpaceX has reached, with its Starliner capsule still to be proven, but it appears likely that they will have worked through their problems by sometime next year (approximately three years after SpaceX succeeded with its first tests).  Meanwhile, even though work on the Orion spacecraft began in 2005 and work on the SLS began in 2011, both the SLS and Orion are still to be tested.  The SLS was supposed to be operational in 2016, but its first operational flight is now scheduled for 2023 and will almost certainly be later.  The key components of the SLS (the engines and the strap-on solid rocket boosters) were all taken from the Space Shuttle or even earlier designs.  It is not at all clear why this should have taken so long.

We also can now work out reasonable estimates of the costs, and can compare them to the costs under the more commercial approach.  In terms of the development costs (planned through FY2023), the SLS will cost an astonishing 65 times what it cost to develop the Falcon Heavy.  The SLS will be able to carry a heavier load, but only about 50% more than what a Falcon Heavy can carry.  It is difficult to see why this would cost 65 times as much.  And it is not just the SLS.  The cost of developing the Ares I, including what had been planned to be spent through FY2014 (when it still would not have been fully ready) would have been 42 times what the similarly sized Falcon 9 cost to develop.  These are mind-boggling high multiples.

The operational costs per launch are also high multiples of what the costs are for commercially developed rockets.  The cost of a launch of the SLS will be 22 times the cost of the recoverable Falcon Heavy.  While it can carry more, the cost per kilogram to low earth orbit will be 13 times higher for the SLS (excluding its development costs) compared to that for the recoverable version of the Falcon Heavy, and 9 times higher when compared to the expendable version.

Similarly, it is expected that development of the Orion capsule (not counting the cost of the Service Module, that the Europeans are developing as their contribution to the program) will by FY2023 have cost almost 12 times the cost of developing the SpaceX Crew Dragon.  And the operational cost per seat will be 5 times higher for the Orion than the cost for the Crew Dragon flights, and 3 times higher than for the Boeing Starliner.

The evidence is clear.  Why then, are the conservative Republican Senators and Members of Congress (as well as a few Democrats, including, significantly, Representative Eddie Bernice Johson, D-Texas, who is the current Chair of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology) so opposed to NASA entering into commercial contracts with SpaceX and others?  The answer, clearly, is the politics of it.  Spending billions of dollars on such hardware keeps many employed, and many of those jobs are in high-wage engineering and technical positions.  From this perspective, the high costs are not a flaw but a feature.

This is not only a waste.  Since budgets are not unlimited such waste has also meant long delays in achieving the intended goals.  The space program has traditionally enjoyed much goodwill in the general population.  But such waste, as well as the resulting long delays in achieving the intended aims, could destroy that goodwill.

That would be unfortunate, although not the end of the world.  One does, however, see the same issues with the military budget, where the stakes are higher.  And the costs are also much higher, with major military programs now costing in the hundreds of billions of dollars rather than the tens of billions for the space program.  An example has been the development of the F-35 fighter jet.  The program began in 1992, the first prototypes (of Lockheed and Boeing) flew in 2000, Lockheed won the contract in 2001, the first planes were manufactured in 2011, and the first squadron became operational in 2015.  That is, it took 23 years to go from the initial design and conceptual work to the first operational unit.  Furthermore, it is expected to be the most expensive military program in history, with over $400 billion expected to be spent to acquire the planes and a further $1.1 trillion to keep them operational over a 50-year life cycle for the program.  That is a total cost of $1.5 trillion, and other estimates place the cost at $1.6 or even $1.7 trillion (and no one will know for sure what it will be until this is all history).

The factors driving such high costs as well multi-decade time frames to go from concept to operations are undoubtedly similar to those that have driven this for major NASA programs such as the Orion and the SLS.  Spending more is politically attractive to those politicians that represent the states and districts where the spending will be done.  But for the military, the stakes (and not simply the dollar amounts) are a good deal higher than they are for the space program.

But it should also be recognized that the cure for this is likely to be more complicated and difficult than what NASA has been able to achieve through changes to its traditional contracting and procurement model.  Industry capabilities will need to be developed, with greater competition introduced.  In major areas there are now often only two or three manufacturers, and sometimes only one, with the capabilities required.

We do, however, now have examples of what can be done.  ULA (United Launch Alliance) had a monopoly on heavy-lift launch vehicles following its creation in 2006 by combining what had been the competing launch divisions of Boeing and Lockheed.  SpaceX entered that market, and we saw above what resulted.  If such progress is possible with something as complex as a heavy-lift rocket, it should be possible in at least some other areas of military procurement as well.

 

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Annex:  Why Cost Comparisons of Rockets and Spacecraft are Difficult to Make

One might think that comparisons of costs of rockets as well as spacecraft would be straightforward.  But they are not, for a number of reasons:

a)  First, different sources will often provide different estimates.  There is no single, authoritative, source that one can cite, and one will often see differing estimates in different sources.  Recognizing this, for the purposes here – which are to compare the costs where there is competition (primarily SpaceX) to the costs under NASA procurement from the traditional contractors – I have sought to use estimates that are on the high side of what has been published for the costs of the SpaceX vehicles, and on the low side for the costs of the traditional NASA contractors.  Despite this, the SpaceX costs are still far lower.

b)  An important reason there are these different cost estimates from different sources is that the information on what the costs actually are have often been kept confidential.  SpaceX is the most transparent, but even here what they publish on their website ($62 million for a Falcon 9 launch, and $90 million for a Falcon Heavy) should really be viewed more as a “list price” that will be negotiated.  For NASA, full transparency on the costs can be embarrassing.  For commercial providers, less-than-transparent cost figures may be seen as helpful when they engage in negotiations with those who would purchase their services.

c)  Which brings us to a third factor, which is negotiating power.  Just like when buying a car, the price that will be paid will depend in part on the relative negotiating powers of the parties.  When there is a low-cost competing supplier (such as SpaceX), there will be pressure on higher-cost suppliers to lower their prices.  One has seen this with the prices being charged for launches of the Delta IV Heavy and Atlas V rockets.  Negotiating power will also depend on whether one will be a repeat customer or just a one-time user.  For these reasons there will not be one, unique, price that can be cited as the “cost” of launching a particular rocket.  It will depend on the negotiations.

d)  And this also leads to the distinction between the cost of a rocket launch and the price charged.  Ideally, what one wants as the basis for comparison is the cost.  However, the best information available will often be the price that some customer paid.  But that price may include a substantial profit margin if that customer did not have much negotiating power to bargain down the price.  It might also work the other way.  The cost of developing and launching the Boeing Starliner capsule, which was discussed above, is based on what NASA is paying.  Yet because of the repeated problems with the development of the Starliner, Boeing is certainly losing money on that fixed-price contract.  How much Boeing is losing has not been disclosed, and indeed since there are continued problems they do not yet know themselves how much it will have cost in the end.  Hence, in a comparison of the cost of delivering astronauts to the ISS the true cost of the Boeing Starliner will be something more than what NASA is paying, and it is that higher cost which really should be the basis for comparison with the cost of the SpaceX Crew Dragon alternative.

e)  The common basis for comparison is also inherently problematic.  While the standard measure for a rocket (and the one used here) is how many kilograms of payload can be lifted to low earth orbit, specific situations are more complicated.  Depending on the mission, one will want to place the payload into different types of orbits, including different altitudes (from 100 miles to several hundred miles, and still be considered “low”), different angles to the equator (the higher the angle, the higher the share of the world’s land area that would be covered by the satellite over some period, such as a month), and perhaps different requirements on how circular the orbit needs to be (the difference between the highest point in the orbit and the lowest).  There will be different thrust (hence fuel) requirements for each of these, possibly different payload weights that can be handled, and possibly other differences, all of which would end up being reflected in the negotiated price for the launch.

f)  Different payloads also have different requirements on how they must be handled, how they need to be attached to the rocket, the requirements on the fairings (the nose cone shell surrounding the payload to protect it at launch, which is jettisoned once orbital altitude is reached), and so on.  Military launches are also more expensive (and charged accordingly) due to the secrecy arrangements the Defense Department requires.

g)  Different boosters will also have different capabilities.  For a launch into low earth orbit these capabilities might not all be needed, but they may still be reflected in the costs.  The most obvious is the size of the payload.  If the weight is more than a smaller rocket can handle (and the payload cannot be divided into two or more smaller satellites), then they will have to use a larger booster even if the cost per kilogram is higher.

h)  The calculations of the cost per kilogram of payload are also based on the maximum payload each rocket can handle.  But it would be coincidental that any particular payload will be exactly at this maximum weight.  The cost per kilogram will then be higher for a payload that weighs less than this maximum.  While there may be some savings in total costs in launching a payload that is less than the maximum a rocket can handle (somewhat less fuel will be needed, for example), such savings will be modest.  For this reason, SpaceX and others will typically offer to sell, at a low price, such extra space to those with just small satellites, piggy-backing on larger satellites that do not need to use up the full payload capacity of the rocket.  The entity with the larger satellite might then receive a discount from what the cost otherwise would have been.

i)  Finally, one should recognize that there are normally several variants of each launch vehicle, with somewhat different capabilities and costs.  To the extent possible, all the cost estimates in this post are for a single, recent, variant of the vehicles.  The Falcon 9 launch vehicle, for example, is now at what they have named the “Block 5” variant, and the costs of that version are what have been used here.  Earlier versions of the Falcon 9 were labeled v1.0, v1.1, v1.2 or “Full Thrust” (and sometimes referred to as Block 3), and Block 4.

 

There are therefore a number of reasons why one needs to be cautious in judging reported cost differences between various rockets as well as spacecraft.  As noted in the text, cost differences of 10 or 20% certainly, and indeed even 40 or 50%, should not be seen as necessarily significant.  But as the charts show, the cost differences are far higher than this, with the costs of the traditional contractors following the traditional NASA procurement processes many times the costs obtained under the more competitive process the Obama administration introduced to manned space flight (at substantial political cost).

The Ridership Forecasts for the Baltimore-Washington SCMAGLEV Are Far Too High

The United States desperately needs better public transit.  While the lockdowns made necessary by the spread of the virus that causes Covid-19 led to sharp declines in transit use in 2020, with (so far) only a partial recovery, there will remain a need for transit to provide decent basic service in our metropolitan regions.  Lower-income workers are especially dependent on public transit, and many of them are, as we now see, the “essential workers” that society needs to function.  The Washington-Baltimore region is no exception.

Yet rather than focus on the basic nuts and bolts of ensuring quality services on our subways, buses, and trains, the State of Maryland is once again enamored with using the scarce resources available for public transit to build rail lines through our public parkland in order to serve a small elite.  The Purple Line light rail line was such a case.  Its dual rail lines will serve a narrow 16-mile corridor, passing through some of the richest zip codes in the nation, but destroying precious urban parkland.  As was discussed in an earlier post on this blog, with what will be spent on the Purple Line one could instead stop charging fares on the county-run bus services in the entirety of the two counties the Purple Line will pass through (Montgomery and Prince George’s), and at the same time double those bus services (i.e. double the lines, or double the service frequency, or some combination).

The administration of Governor Hogan of Maryland nonetheless pushed the Purple Line through, although construction has now been halted for close to a year due to cost overruns leading the primary construction contractor to withdraw.  Hogan’s administration is now promoting the building of a superconducting, magnetically-levitating, train (SCMAGLEV) between downtown Baltimore and downtown Washington, DC, with a stop at BWI Airport.  Over $35 million has already been spent, with a massive Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) produced.  As required by federal law, the DEIS has been made available for public comment, with comments due by May 24.

It is inevitable that such a project will lead to major, and permanent, environmental damage.  The SCMAGLEV would travel partially in tunnels underground, but also on elevated pylons parallel to the Baltimore-Washington Parkway (administered by the National Park Service).  The photos at the top of this post show what it would look like at one section of the parkway.  The question that needs to be addressed is whether any benefits will outweigh the costs (both environmental and other costs), and ridership is central to this.  If ridership is likely to be well less than that forecast, the whole case for the project collapses.  It will not cover its operating and maintenance costs, much less pay back even a portion of what will be spent to build it (up to $17 billion according to the DEIS, but likely to be far more based on experience with similar projects).  Nor would the purported economic benefits then follow.

I have copied below comments I submitted on the DEIS forecasts.  Readers may find them of interest as this project illustrates once again that despite millions of dollars being spent, the consulting firms producing such analyses can get some very basic things wrong.  The issue I focus on for the proposed SCMAGLEV is the ridership forecasts.  The SCMAGLEV project sponsors forecast that the SCMAGLEV will carry 24.9 million riders (one-way trips) in 2045.  The SCMAGLEV will require just 15 minutes to travel between downtown Baltimore and downtown Washington (with a stop at BWI), and is expected to charge a fare of $120 (roundtrip) on average and up to $160 at peak hours.  As one can already see from the fares, at best it would serve a narrow elite.

But there is already a high-speed train providing premier-level service between Baltimore and Washington – the Acela service of Amtrak.  It takes somewhat longer – 30 minutes currently – but its fare is also somewhat lower at $104 for a roundtrip, plus it operates from more convenient stations in Baltimore and Washington.  Importantly, it operates now, and we thus have a sound basis for forecasts of what its ridership might be in the future.

One can thus compare the forecast ridership on the proposed SCMAGLEV to the forecast for Acela ridership (also in the DEIS) in a scenario of no SCMAGLEV.  One would expect the forecasts to be broadly comparable.  One could allow that perhaps it might be somewhat higher on the SCMAGLEV, but probably less than twice as high and certainly less than three times as high.  But one can calculate from figures in the DEIS that the forecast SCMAGLEV ridership in 2045 would be 133 times higher than what they forecast Acela ridership would be in that year (in a scenario of no SCMAGLEV).  For those going just between downtown Baltimore and downtown Washington (i.e. excluding BWI travelers), the forecast SCMAGLEV ridership would be 154 times higher than what it would be on the comparable Acela.  This is absurd.

And it gets worse.  For reasons that are not clear, the base year figures for Acela ridership in the Baltimore-Washington market are more than eight times higher in the DEIS than figures that Amtrak itself has produced.  It is possible that the SCMAGLEV analysts included Acela riders who have boarded north of Baltimore (such as in Philadelphia or New York) and then traveled through to DC (or from DC would pass through Baltimore to ultimate destinations further north).  But such travelers should not be included, as the relevant travelers who might take the SCMAGLEV would only be those whose trips begin in either Baltimore or in Washington and end in the other metropolitan area.  The project sponsors have made no secret that they hope eventually to build a SCMAGLEV line the full distance between Washington and New York, but that would at a minimum be in the distant future.  It is not a source of riders included in their forecasts for a Baltimore to Washington SCMAGLEV.

The Amtrak forecasts of what it expects its Acela ridership would be, by market (including between Baltimore and Washington) and under various investment scenarios, come from its recent NEC FUTURE (for Northeast Corridor Future) study, for which it produced a Final Environmental Impact Statement.  Using Amtrak’s forecasts of what its Acela ridership would be in a scenario where major investments allowed the Acela to take just 20 minutes to go between Baltimore and Washington, the SCMAGLEV ridership forecasts were 727 times as high (in 2040).  That is complete nonsense.

My comment submitted on the DEIS, copied below, goes further into these results and discusses as well how the SCMAGLEV sponsors could have gotten their forecasts so absurdly wrong.  But the lesson here is that the consultants producing such forecasts are paid by project sponsors who wish to see the project built.  Thus they have little interest in even asking the question of why they have come up with an estimate that 24.9 million would take a SCMAGLEV in 2045 (requiring 15 minutes on the train itself to go between Baltimore and DC) while ridership on the Acela in that year (in a scenario where the Acela would require 5 minutes more, i.e. 20 minutes, and there is no SCMAGLEV) would be about just 34,000.

One saw similar issues with the Purple Line.  An examination of the ridership forecasts made for it found that in about half of the transit analysis zone pairs, the predicted ridership on all forms of public transit (buses, trains, and the Purple Line as well) was less than what they forecast it would be on the Purple Line only.  This is mathematically impossible.  And the fact that half were higher and half were lower suggests that the results they obtained were basically just random.  They also forecast that close to 20,000 would travel by the Purple Line into Bethesda each day but only about 10,000 would leave (which would lead to Bethesda’s population exploding, if true).  The source of this error was clear (they mixed up two formats for the trips – what is called the production/attraction format with origin/destination), but it mattered.  They concluded that the Purple Line had to be a rail line rather than a bus service in order to handle their predicted 20,000 riders each day on the segment to Bethesda.

It may not be surprising that private promoters of such projects would overlook such issues.  They may stand to gain (i.e. from the construction contracts, or from an increase in land values next to station sites), even though society as a whole loses.  Someone else (government) is paying.  But public officials in agencies such as the Maryland Department of Transportation should be looking at what is the best way to ensure quality and affordable transit services for the general public.  Problems develop once the officials see their role as promoters of some specific project.  They then seek to come up with a rationale to justify the project, and see their role as surmounting all the hurdles encountered along the way.  They are not asking whether this is the best use of scarce public resources to address our very real transit needs.

A high-speed magnetically-levitating train (with superconducting magnets, no less), may look attractive.  But officials should not assume such a shiny new toy will address our transit issues.

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May 22, 2021

Comment Submitted on the DEIS for SCMAGLEV

The Ridership Forecasts Are Far Too High

A.  Introduction

I am opposed to the construction of the proposed SCMAGLEV project between Baltimore and Washington, DC.  A key issue for any such system is whether ridership will be high enough to compensate for the environmental damage that is inevitable with such a project.  But the ridership forecasts presented in the DEIS are hugely flawed.  They are far too high and simply do not meet basic conditions of plausibility.  At more plausible ridership levels, the case for such a project collapses.  It will not cover its operating costs, much less pay back any of the investment (of up to $17 billion according to the DEIS, but based on experience likely to be far higher).  Nor will the purported positive economic benefits then follow.  But the damage to the environment will be permanent.

Specifically, there is rail service now between Baltimore and Washington, at three levels of service (the high-speed Acela service of Amtrak, the regular Amtrak Regional service, and MARC).  Ridership on the Acela service, as it is now and with what is expected with upgrades in future years, provides a benchmark that can be used.  While it could be argued that ridership on the proposed SCMAGLEV would be higher than ridership on the Acela trains, the question is how much higher.  I will discuss below in more detail the factors to take into account in making such a comparison, but briefly, the Acela service takes 30 minutes today to go between Baltimore and Washington, while the SCMAGLEV would take 15 minutes.  But given that it also takes time to get to the station and on the train, and then to the ultimate destination at the other end, the time savings would be well less than 50%.  The fare would also be higher on the SCMAGLEV (at an average, according to the DEIS, of $120 for a round-trip ticket but up to $160 at peak hours, versus an average of $104 on the Acela).  In addition, the stations the SCMAGLEV would use for travel between downtown Baltimore and downtown Washington are less conveniently located (with poorer connections to local transit) than the Acela uses.

Thus while it could be argued that the SCMAGLEV would attract more riders than the Acela, even this is not clear.  But being generous, one could allow that it might attract somewhat more riders.  The question is how many.  And this is where it becomes completely implausible.  Based on the ridership forecasts in the DEIS, for both the SCMAGLEV and for the Acela (in a scenario where the SCMAGLEV is not built), the SCMAGLEV in 2045 would carry 133 times what ridership would be on the Acela.  Excluding the BWI ridership on both, it would be 154 times higher.  There is no way to describe this other than that it is just nonsense.  And with other, likely more accurate, forecasts of what Acela ridership would be in the future (discussed below) the ratios become higher still.

Similarly, if the SCMAGLEV will be as attractive to MARC riders as the project sponsors forecast it will be, then most of those MARC riders would now be on the modestly less attractive Acela.  But they aren’t.  The Acela is 30 minutes faster than MARC (the SCMAGLEV would be 45 minutes faster), yet 28 times as many riders choose MARC over Acela between Baltimore and Washington.  I suspect the fare difference ($16 per day on MARC, vs. $104 on the Acela) plays an important role.  The model used could have been tested by calculating a forecast with their model of what Acela ridership would be under current conditions, with this then compared this to what the actual figures are.  Evidently this was not done.  Had they, their predicted Acela ridership would likely have been a high multiple of the actual and it would have been clear that their modeling framework has problems.

Why are the forecasts off by orders of magnitude?  Unfortunately, given what has been made available in the DEIS and with the accompanying papers on ridership, one cannot say for sure.  But from what has been made available, there are indications of where the modeling approach taken had issues.  I will discuss these below.

In the rest of this comment I will first discuss the use of Acela service and its ridership (both the actual now and as projected) as a basis for comparison to the ridership forecasts made for the SCMAGLEV.  They would be basically similar services, where a modest time saving on the SCMAGLEV (15 minutes now, but only 5 minutes in the future if further investments are made in the Acela service that would cut its Baltimore to DC time to just 20 minutes) is offset by a higher fare and less convenient station locations.  I will then discuss some reasons that might explain why the SCMAGLEV ridership forecasts are so hugely out-of-line with what plausible numbers might be.

B.  A Comparison of SCMAGLEV Ridership Forecasts to Those for Acela  

The DEIS provides ridership forecasts for the SCMAGLEV for both 2030 (several years after the DEIS says it would be opened, so ridership would then be stable after an initial ramping up) and for a horizon year of 2045.  I will focus here on the 2045 forecasts, and specifically on the alternative where the destination station in Baltimore is Camden Yards.  The DEIS also has forecasts for ridership in an alternative where the SCMAGLEV line would end in the less convenient Cherry Hill neighborhood of Baltimore, which is significantly further from downtown and with poorer connections to local transit options.  The Camden Yards station is more comparable to Penn Station – Baltimore, which the Acela (and Amtrak Regional trains and one of the MARC lines) use.  Penn Station – Baltimore has better local transit connections and would be more convenient for many potential riders, but this will of course depend on the particular circumstances of the rider – where he or she will be starting from and where their particular destination will be.  It will, in particular, be more convenient for riders coming from North and Northeast of Baltimore than Camden Yards would be.  And those from South and Southwest of Baltimore would be more likely to drive directly to the DC region than try to reach Camden Yards, or they would alight at BWI.

The DEIS also provides forecasts of what ridership would be on the existing train services between Baltimore and Washington:  the Acela services (operated by Amtrak), the regular Amtrak Regional trains, and the MARC commuter service operated by the State of Maryland.  Note also that the 2045 forecasts for the train services are for both a scenario where the SCMAGLEV is not built and then what they forecast the reduced ridership would be with a SCMAGLEV option.  For the purposes here, what is of interest is the scenario with no SCMAGLEV.

The SCMAGLEV would provide a premium service, requiring 15 minutes to go between downtown Baltimore and downtown Washington, DC.  Acela also provides a premium service and currently takes 30 minutes, while the regular Amtrak Regional trains take 40 to 45 minutes and MARC service takes 60 minutes.  But the fares differ substantially.  Using the DEIS figures (with all prices and fares expressed in base year 2018 dollars), the SCMAGLEV would charge an average fare of $120 for a round-trip (Baltimore-Washington), and up to $160 for a roundtrip at peak times.  The Acela also has a high fare for its also premium service, although not as high as SCMAGLEV, charging an average of $104 for a roundtrip (using the DEIS figures).  But Amtrak Regional trains charge only $34 for a similar roundtrip, and MARC only $16.

Acela service thus provides a reasonable basis for comparison to what SCMAGLEV would provide, with the great advantage that we know now what Acela ridership has actually been.  This provides a firm base for a forecast of what Acela ridership would be in a future year in a scenario where the SCMAGLEV is not built.  And while the ridership on the two would not be exactly the same, one should expect them to be in the same ballpark.

But they are far from that:

  DEIS Forecasts of SCMAGLEV vs. Acela Ridership, Annual Trips in 2045

Route

SCMAGLEV Trips

Acela Trips

Ratio

Baltimore – DC only

19,277,578

125,226

154 times as much

All, including BWI

24,938,652

187,887

133 times as much

Sources:  DEIS, Main Report Table 4.2-3; and Table D-4-48 of Appendix D.4 of the DEIS

Using estimates just from the DEIS, the project sponsor is forecasting that annual (one-way) trips on the SCMAGLEV in 2045 would be 133 times what they would be in that year on the Acela (in a scenario where the SCMAGLEV is not built).  And it would be 154 times as much for the Baltimore – Washington riders only.  This is nonsense.  One could have a reasonable debate if the SCMAGLEV figures were twice as high, and maybe even if they were three times as high.  But it is absurd that they would be 133 or 154 times as high.

And it gets worse.  The figures above are all taken from the DEIS.  But the base year Acela ridership figures in the DEIS (Appendix D.4, Table D.4-45) differ substantially from figures Amtrak itself has produced in its recent NEC FUTURE study.  This review of future investment options in Northeast Corridor (Washington to Boston) Amtrak service was concluded in July 2017.  As part of this it provided forecasts of what future Acela ridership would be under various alternatives, including one (its Alternative 3) where Acela trains would be substantially upgraded and require just 20 minutes for the trip between downtown Baltimore and downtown Washington, DC.  This would be quite similar to what SCMAGLEV service would be.

But for reasons that are not clear, the base year figures for Acela ridership between Baltimore and Washington differ substantially between what the SCMAGLEV DEIS has and what NEC FUTURE has.  The figure in the NEC FUTURE study (for a base year of 2013) puts the number of riders (one-way) between Baltimore and Washington (and not counting those who boarded north of Baltimore, at Philadelphia or New York for example, and then rode through to Washington, and similarly for those going from Washington to Baltimore) at just 17,595.  The DEIS for the SCMAGLEV put the similar Acela ridership (for a base year of 2017) at 147,831 (calculated from Table D.4-45, of Appendix D.4).  While the base years differ (2013 vs. 2017), the disparity cannot be explained by that.  It is far too large.  My guess would be that the DEIS counted all Acela travelers taking up seats between Baltimore and Washington, including those who alighted north of Baltimore (or whose destination from Washington was north of Baltimore), and not just those travelers traveling solely between Washington and Baltimore.  But the SCMAGLEV will be serving only the Baltimore-Washington market, with no interconnections with the train routes coming from north of Baltimore.

What was the source of the Acela ridership figure in the DEIS of 147,831 in 2017?  That is not clear.  Table D.4-45 of Appendix D.4 says that its source is Table 3-10 of the “SCMAGLEV Final Ridership Report”, dated November 8, 2018.  But that report, which is available along with the other DEIS reports (with a direct link at https://bwmaglev.info/index.php/component/jdownloads/?task=download.send&id=71&catid=6&m=0&Itemid=101), does not have a Table 3-10.  Significant portions of that report were redacted, but in its Table of Contents no reference is shown to a Table 3-10 (even though other redacted tables, such as Tables 5-2 and 6-3, are still referenced in the Table of Contents, but labeled as redacted).

One can only speculate on why there is no Table 3-10 in the Final Ridership Report.  Perhaps it was deleted when someone discovered that the figures reported there, which were then later used as part of the database for the ridership forecast models, were grossly out of line with the Amtrak figures.  The Amtrak figure for Acela ridership for Baltimore-Washington passengers of 17,595 (in 2013) is less than one-eighth of the figure on Acela ridership shown in the DEIS or 147,831 (in 2017).

It can be difficult for an outsider to know how many of those riding on the Acela between Washington and Baltimore are passengers going just between those two cities (as well as BWI).  Most of the passengers riding on that segment will be going on to (or coming from) cities further north.  One would need access to ticket sales data.  But it is reasonable to assume that Amtrak itself would know this, and therefore that the figures in the NEC FUTURE study would likely be accurate.  Furthermore, in the forecast horizon years, where Amtrak is trying to show what Acela (and other rail) ridership would grow to with alternative investment programs, it is reasonable to assume that Amtrak would provide relatively optimistic (i.e. higher) estimates, as higher estimates are more likely to convince Congress to provide the funding that would be required for such investments.

The Amtrak figures would in any case provide a suitable comparison to what SCMAGLEV’s future ridership might be.  The Amtrak forecasts are for 2040, so for the SCMAGLEV forecasts I interpolated to produce an estimate for 2040 assuming a constant rate of growth between the forecast SCMAGLEV ridership in 2030 and that for 2045.  Both the NEC FUTURE and SCMAGLEV figures include the stop at BWI.

    Forecasts of SCMAGLEV (DEIS) vs. Acela (NEC FUTURE) Ridership between Baltimore and Washington, Annual Trips in 2040 

Alternative

SCMAGLEV Trips

Acela Trips

Ratio

No Action

22,761,428

26,177

870 times as much

Alternative 1

22,761,428

26,779

850 times as much

Alternative 2

22,761,428

29,170

780 times as much

Alternative 3

22,761,428

31,291

727 times as much

Sources:  SCMAGLEV trips interpolated from figures on forecast ridership in 2030 and 2045 (Camden Yards) in Table 4.2-3 of DEIS.  Acela trips from NEC FUTURE Final EIS, Volume 2, Appendix B.08.

The Acela ridership figures are those estimated under various investment scenarios in the rail service in the Northeast Corridor.  NEC FUTURE examined a “No Action” scenario with just minimal investments, and then various alternative investment levels to produce increasingly capable services.  Alternative 3 (of which there were four sub-variants, but all addressing alternative investments between New York and Boston and thus not affecting directly the Washington-Baltimore route) would upgrade Acela service to the extent that it would go between Baltimore and Washington in just 20 minutes.  This would be very close to the 15 minutes for the SCMAGLEV.  Yet even with such a comparable service, the SCMAGLEV DEIS is forecasting that its service would carry 727 times as many riders as what Amtrak has forecast for its Acela service (in a scenario where there is no SCMAGLEV).  This is complete nonsense.

To be clear, I would stress again that the forecast future Acela ridership figures are a scenario under various possible investment programs by Amtrak.  The investment program in Alternative 3 would upgrade Acela service to a degree where the Baltimore – Washington trip (with a stop at BWI) would take just 20 minutes.  The NEC FUTURE study forecasts that in such a scenario the Baltimore-Washington ridership on Acela would total a bit over 31,000 trips in the year 2040.  In contrast, the DEIS for the SCMAGLEV forecasts that there would in that year be close to 23 million trips taken on the similar SCMAGLEV service, requiring 15 minutes to make such a trip.  Such a disparity makes no sense.

C.  How Could the Forecasts be so Wrong?

A well-known consulting firm, Louis Berger, prepared the ridership forecasts, and their “Final Ridership Report” dated November 8, 2018, referenced above, provides an overview on the approach they took.  Unfortunately, while I appreciate that the project sponsor provided a link to this report along with the rest of the DEIS (I had asked for this, having seen references to it in the DEIS), the report that was posted had significant sections redacted.  Due to those redactions, and possibly also limitations in what the full report itself might have included (such as summaries of the underlying data), it is impossible to say for sure why the forecasts of SCMAGLEV ridership were close to three orders of magnitude greater than what ridership has been and is expected to be on comparable Acela service.

Thus I can only speculate.  But there are several indications of what may have led the SCMAGLEV estimates to be so out of line with ridership on a service that is at least broadly comparable.  Specifically:

1)  As noted above, there were apparent problems in assembling existing data on rail ridership for the Baltimore-Washington market, in particular for the Acela.  The ridership numbers for the Acela in the DEIS were more than eight times higher in their base year (2017) than what Amtrak had in an only slightly earlier base year (2013).  The ridership numbers on Amtrak Regional trains (for Baltimore-Washington riders) were closer but still substantially different:  409,671 in Table D.4-45 of the DEIS (for 2017), vs. 172,151 in NEC FUTURE (for 2013).

Table D.4-45 states that its source for this data on rail ridership is a Table 3-10 in the Final Ridership Report of November 8, 2018.  But as noted previously, such a table is not there – it was either never there or it was redacted.  Thus it is impossible to determine why their figures differ so much from those of Amtrak.  But the differences for the Acela figures (more than a factor of eight) are huge, i.e. close to an order of magnitude by itself.  While it is impossible to say for sure, my guess (as noted above) is that the Acela ridership numbers in the DEIS included travelers whose trip began, or would end, in destinations north of Baltimore, who then traveled through Baltimore on their way to, or from, Washington, DC.  But such travelers are not part of the market the SCMAGLEV would serve.

2)  In modeling the choice those traveling between Baltimore and Washington would have between SCMAGLEV and alternatives, the analysts collapsed all the train options (Acela, Amtrak Regional, and MARC) into one.  See page 61 of the Ridership Report.  They create a weighted average for a single “train” alternative, and they note that since (in their figures) MARC ridership makes up almost 90% of the rail market, the weighted averages for travel time and the fare will be essentially that of MARC.

Thus they never looked at Acela as an alternative, with a service level not far from that of SCMAGLEV.  Nor do they even consider the question of why so many MARC riders (67.5% of MARC riders in 2045 if the Camden Yards option is chosen – see page D-56 of Appendix D-4 of the DEIS) are forecast to divert to the SCMAGLEV, but are not doing so now (nor in the future) to Acela.  According to Table D-45 of Appendix D.4 of the DEIS, in their data for their 2017 base year, there are 28 times as many MARC riders as on Acela between downtown Baltimore and downtown Washington, and 20 times as many with those going to and from the BWI stop included.  Evidently, they do not find the Acela option attractive.  Why should they then find the SCMAGLEV train attractive?

3)  The answer as to why MARC riders have not chosen to ride on the Acela almost certainly has something to do with the difference in the fares.  A round-trip on MARC costs $16 a day.  A round trip on Acela costs, according to the DEIS, an average of $104 a day.  That is not a small difference.  For someone commuting 5 days a week and 50 weeks a year (or 250 days a year), the annual cost on MARC would be $4,000 but $26,000 a year on the Acela.  And it would be an even higher $30,000 a year on the SCMAGLEV (based on an average fare of $120 for a round trip), and $40,000 a year ($160 a day) at peak hours (which would cover the times commuters would normally use).  Even for those moderately well off, $40,000 a year for commuting would be a significant expense, and not an attractive alternative to MARC with its cost of just one-tenth of this.

If such costs were properly taken into account in the forecasting model, why did it nonetheless predict that most MARC riders would switch to the SCMAGLEV?  This is not fully clear as the model details were not presented in the redacted report, but note that the modelers assigned high dollar amounts for the time value of money ($31.00 to $46.50 for commuters and other non-business travel, and $50.60 to $75.80 for business travel – see page 53 of the Ridership Report).  However, even at such high values, the numbers do not appear to be consistent.  Taking a SCMAGLEV (15 minute trip) rather than MARC (60 minutes) would save 45 minutes each way or 1 1/2 hours a day.  Only at the very high end value of time for business travelers (of $75.80 per hour, or $113.70 for 1 1/2 hours) would this value of time offset the fare difference of $104 (using the average SCMAGLEV fare of $120 minus the MARC fare of $16).  And even that would not suffice for travelers at peak hours (with its SCMAGLEV fare of $160).

But there is also a more basic problem.  It is wrong to assume that travelers on MARC treat their 60 minutes on the train as all wasted time.  They can read, do some work, check their emails, get some sleep, or plan their day.  The presumption that they would pay amounts similar to what some might on average earn in an hour based on their annual salaries is simply incorrect.  And as noted above, if it were correct, then one would see many more riders on the Acela than one does (and similarly riders on the Amtrak Regional trains, that require about 40 minutes for the Washington to Baltimore trip, with an average fare of $34 for a round trip).

There is a similar issue for those who drive.  Those who drive do not place a value on the time spent in their cars equal to what they would earn in an hourly equivalent of their regular salary.  They may well want to avoid traffic jams, which are stressful and frustrating for other reasons, but numerous studies have found that a simple value-of-time calculation based on annual salaries does not explain why so many commuters choose to drive.

4)  Data for the forecasting model also came in part from two personal surveys.  One was an in-person survey of travelers encountered on MARC, at either the MARC BWI Station or onboard Penn Line trains, or at BWI airport.  The other was an online internet survey, where they unfortunately redacted out how they chose possible respondents.

But such surveys are unreliable, with answers that depend critically on how the questions are phrased.  The Final Ridership report does not include the questionnaire itself (most such reports would), so one cannot know what bias there might have been in how the questions were worded.  As an example (and admittedly an exaggerated example, to make the point) were the MARC riders simply asked whether they would prefer a much faster, 15 minute, trip?  Or were they asked whether they would pay an extra $104 per day ($144 at peak hours) to ride a service that would save them 45 minutes each way on the train?

But even such willingness to pay questions are notoriously unreliable.  An appropriate follow-up question to a MARC rider saying they would be willing to pay up to an extra $144 a day to ride a SCMAGLEV, would be why are they evidently not now riding the Acela (at an extra $88 a day) for a ride just 15 minutes longer than what it would be on the SCMAGLEV.

One therefore has to be careful in interpreting and using the results from such a survey in forecasting how travelers would behave.  If current choices (e.g. using the MARC rather than the Acela) do not reflect the responses provided, one should be concerned.

5)  Finally, the particular mathematical form used to model the choices the future travelers would make can make a big difference to the findings.  The Final Ridership Report briefly explains (page 53) that it used a multinomial logit model as the basis for its modeling.  Logit functions assign a continuous probability (starting from 0 and rising to 100%) of some event occurring.  In this model, the event is that a traveler going from one travel zone to another will choose to travel via the SCMAGLEV, or not.  The likelihood of choosing to travel via the SCMAGLEV will be depicted as an S-shaped function, starting at zero and then smoothly rising (following the S-shape) until it reaches 100%, depending on, among other factors, what the travel time savings might be.

The results that such a model will predict will depend critically, of course, on the particular parameters chosen.  But the heavily redacted Final Ridership Report does not show what those parameters were nor how they were chosen or possibly estimated, nor even the complete set of variables used in that function.  The report says little (in what remains after the redactions) beyond that they used that functional form.

A feature of such logit models is that while the choices are discrete (one either will ride the SCMAGLEV or will not), it allows for “fuzziness” around the turning points, that recognize that between individuals, even if they confront a similar combination of variables (a combination of cost, travel time, and other measured attributes), some will simply prefer to drive while some will prefer to take the train.  That is how people are.  But then, while a higher share might prefer to take a train (or the SCMAGLEV) when travel times fall (by close to 45 minutes with the SCMAGLEV when compared to their single “train” option that is 90% MARC, and by variable amounts for those who drive depending on the travel zone pairs), how much higher that share will be will depend on the parameters they selected for their logit.

With certain parameters, the responses can be sensitive to even small reductions in travel times, and the predicted resulting shifts then large.  But are those parameters reasonable?  As noted previously, a test would have been whether the model, with the parameters chosen, would have predicted accurately the number of riders actually observed on the Acela trains in the base year.  But it does not appear such a test was done.  At least no such results were reported to test whether the model was validated or not.

Thus there are a number of possible reasons why the forecast ridership on the SCMAGLEV differs so much from what one currently observes for ridership on the Acela, and from what one might reasonably expect Acela ridership to be in the future.  It is not possible to say whether these are indeed the reasons why the SCMAGLEV forecasts are so incredibly out of line with what one observes for the Acela.  There may be, and indeed likely are, other reasons as well.  But due to issues such as those outlined here, one can understand the possible factors behind SCMAGLEV ridership forecasts that deviate so markedly from plausibility.

D.  Conclusion

The ridership forecasts for the SCMAGLEV are vastly over-estimated.  Predicted ridership on the SCMAGLEV is a minimum of two, and up to three, orders of magnitude higher than what has been observed on, and can reasonably be forecast for, the Acela.  One should not be getting predicted ridership that is more than 100 times what one observes on a comparable, existing (and thus knowable), service.

With ridership on the proposed system far less than what the project sponsors have forecast, the case for building the SCMAGLEV collapses.  Operational and maintenance costs would not be covered, much less any possibility of paying back a portion of the billions of dollars spent to build it, nor will the purported economic benefits follow.

However, the harm to the environment will have been done.  Even if the system is then shut down (due to the forecast ridership never materializing), it will not be possible to reverse much of that environmental damage.

The US very much needs to improve its public transit.  It is far too difficult, with resulting harm both to the economy and to the population, to move around in the Baltimore-Washington region.  But fixing this will require a focus on the basic nuts and bolts of operating, maintaining, and investing in the transit systems we have, including the trains and buses.  This might not look as attractive as a magnetically levitating train, but will be of benefit.  And it will be of benefit to the general public – in particular to those who rely on public transit – and not just to a narrow elite that can afford $120 fares.  Money for public transit is scarce.  It should not be wasted on shiny new toys.

The Increasingly Attractive Economics of Solar Power: Solar Prices Have Plunged

A.  Introduction

The cost of solar photovoltaic power has fallen dramatically over the past decade, and it is now, together with wind, a lower cost source of new power generation than either fossil-fuel (coal or gas) or nuclear power plants.  The power generated by a new natural gas-fueled power plant in 2018 would have cost a third more than from a solar or wind plant (in terms of the price they would need to sell the power for in order to break even); coal would have cost 2.4 times as much as solar or wind; and a nuclear plant would have cost 3.5 times as much.

These estimates (shown in the chart above, and discussed in more detail below) were derived from figures estimated by Lazard, the investment bank, and are based on bottom-up estimates of what such facilities would have cost to build and operate, including the fuel costs.  But one also finds a similar sharp fall in solar energy prices in the actual market prices that have been charged for the sale of power from such plants under long-term “power purchase agreements” (PPAs).  These will also be discussed below.

With the costs where they are now, it would not make economic sense to build new coal or nuclear generation capacity, nor even gas in most cases.  In practice, however, the situation is more complex due to regulatory issues and conflicting taxes and subsidies, and also because of variation across regions.  Time of day issues may also enter, depending on when (day or night) the increment in new capacity might be needed.  The figures above are also averages, particular cases vary, and what is most economic in any specific locale will depend on local conditions.  Nevertheless, and as we will examine below, there has been a major shift in new generation capacity towards solar and wind, and away from coal (with old coal plants being retired) and from nuclear (with no new plants being built, but old ones largely remaining).

But natural gas generation remains large.  Indeed, while solar and wind generation have grown quickly (from a low base), and together account for the largest increment in new power capacity in recent years, gas accounts for the largest increment in power production (in megawatt-hours) measured from the beginning of this decade.  Why?  In part this is due to the inherent constraints of solar and wind technologies:  Solar panels can only generate power when the sun shines, and wind turbines when the wind is blowing.  But more interestingly, one also needs to look at the economics behind the choice as to whether or not to build new generation capacity to replace existing capacity, and then what sources of capacity to use.  Critical is what economists call the marginal cost of such production.  A power plant lasts for many years once it is built, and the decision on whether to keep an existing plant in operation for another year depends only on the cost of operating and maintaining the plant.  The capital cost has already been spent and is no longer relevant to that decision.

Details in the Lazard report can be used to derive such marginal cost estimates by power source, and we will examine these below.  While the Lazard figures apply to newly built plants (older plants will generally have higher operational and maintenance costs, both because they are getting old and because technology was less efficient when they were built), the estimates based on new plants can still give us a sense of these costs.  But one should recognize they will be biased towards indicating the costs of the older plants are lower than they in fact are.  However, even these numbers (biased in underestimating the costs of older plants) imply that it is now more economical to build new wind and possibly solar plants, in suitable locales, than it costs to continue to keep open and operate coal-burning power plants.  This will be especially true for the older, less-efficient, coal-burning plants.  Thus we should be seeing old coal-burning plants being shut down.  And indeed we do.  Moreover, while the costs of building new wind and solar plants are not yet below the marginal costs of keeping open existing gas-fueled and nuclear power plants, they are on the cusp of being so.

These costs also do not reflect any special subsidies that solar and wind plants might benefit from.  These vary by state.  Fossil-fueled and nuclear power plants also enjoy subsidies (often through special tax advantages), but these are long-standing and are implicitly being included in the Lazard estimates of the costs of such traditional plants.

But one special subsidy enjoyed by fossil fuel burning power plants, not reflected in the Lazard cost estimates, is the implicit subsidy granted to such plants from not having to cover the cost of the damage from the pollution they generate.  Those costs are instead borne by the general public.  And while such plants pollute in many different ways (especially the coal-burning ones), I will focus here on just one of those ways – their emissions of greenhouse gases that are leading to a warming planet and consequent more frequent and more damaging extreme weather events.  Solar and wind generation of power do not cause such pollution – the burning of coal and gas do.

To account for such costs and to ensure a level playing field between power sources, a fee would need to be charged to reflect the costs being imposed on the general population from this (and indeed other) such pollution.  The revenues generated could be distributed back to the public in equal per capita terms, as discussed in an earlier post on this blog.  We will see that a fee of even just $20 per ton of CO2 emitted would suffice to make it economic to build new solar and wind power plants to substitute not just for new gas and coal burning plants, but for existing ones as well.  Gas and especially coal burning plants would not be competitive with installing new solar or wind generation if they had to pay for the damage done as a result of their greenhouse gas pollution, even on just marginal operating costs.

Two notes before starting:  First, many will note that while solar might be fine for the daytime, it will not be available at night.  Similarly, wind generation will be fine when the wind blows, but it may not always blow even in the windiest locales.  This is of course true, and should solar and wind capacity grow to dominate power generation, there will have to be ways to store that power to bridge the times from when the generation occurs to when the power is used.

But while storage might one day be an issue, it is mostly not an issue now.  In 2018, utility-scale solar only accounted for 1.6% of power generation in the US (and 2.3% if one includes small scale roof-top systems), while wind only accounted for 6.6%.  At such low shares, solar and wind power can simply substitute for other, higher cost, sources of power (such as from coal) during the periods the clean sources are available.  Note also that the cost figures for solar and wind reflected in the chart at the top of this post (and discussed in detail below) take into account that solar and wind cannot be used 100% of the time.  Rather, utilization is assumed to be similar to what their recent actual utilization has been, not only for solar and wind but also for gas, coal and nuclear.  Solar and wind are cheaper than other sources of power (over the lifetime of these investments) despite their inherent constraints on possible utilization.

But where the storage question can enter is in cases where new generation capacity is required specifically to serve evening or night-time needs.  New gas burning plants might then be needed to serve such time-of-day needs if storage of day-time solar is not an economic option.  And once such gas-burning plants are built, the decision on whether they should be run also to serve day-time needs will depend on a comparison of the marginal cost of running these gas plants also during the day, to the full cost of building new solar generation capacity, as was discussed briefly above and will be considered in more detail below.

This may explain, in part, why we see new gas-burning plants still being built nationally.  While less than new solar and wind plants combined (in terms of generation capacity), such new gas-burning plants are still being built despite their higher cost.

More broadly, California and Hawaii (both with solar now accounting for over 12% of power used in those states) are two states (and the only two states) which may be approaching the natural limits of solar generation in the absence of major storage.  During some sunny days the cost of power is being driven down to close to zero (and indeed to negative levels on a few days).  Major storage will be needed in those states (and only those states) to make it possible to extend solar generation much further than where it is now.  But this should not be seen so much as a “problem” but rather as an opportunity:  What can we do to take advantage of cheap day-time power to make it available at all hours of the day?  I hope to address that issue in a future blog post.  But in this blog post I will focus on the economics of solar generation (and to a lesser extent from wind), in the absence of significant storage.

Second, on nomenclature:  A megawatt-hour is a million watts of electric power being produced or used for one hour.  One will see it abbreviated in many different ways, including MWHr, MWhr, MWHR, MWH, MWh, and probably more.  I will try to use consistently MWHr.  A kilowatt-hour (often kWh) is a thousand watts of power for one hour, and is the typical unit used for homes.  A megawatt-hour will thus be one thousand times a kilowatt-hour, so a price of, for example, $20 per MWHr for solar-generated power (which we will see below has in fact been offered in several recent PPA contracts) will be equivalent to 2.0 cents per kWh.  This will be the wholesale price of such power.  The retail price in the US for households is typically around 10 to 12 cents per kWh.

B.  The Levelized Cost of Energy 

As seen in the chart at the top of this post, the cost of generating power by way of new utility-scale solar photovoltaic panels has fallen dramatically over the past decade, with a cost now similar to that from new on-shore wind turbines, and well below the cost from building new gas, coal, or nuclear power plants.  These costs can be compared in terms of the “levelized cost of energy” (LCOE), which is an estimate of the price that would need to be charged for power from such a plant over its lifetime, sufficient to cover the initial capital cost (at the anticipated utilization rate), plus the cost of operating and maintaining the plant,

Lazard, the investment bank, has published estimates of such LCOEs annually for some time now.  The most recent report, issued in November 2018, is version 12.0.  Lazard approaches the issue as an investment bank would, examining the cost of producing power by each of the alternative sources, with consistent assumptions on financing (with a debt/equity ratio of 60/40, an assumed cost of debt of 8%, and a cost of equity of 12%) and a time horizon of 20 years.  They also include the impact of taxes, and show separately the impact of special federal tax subsidies for clean energy sources.  But the figures I will refer to throughout this post (including in the chart above) are always the estimates excluding any impact from special subsidies for clean energy.  The aim is to see what the underlying actual costs are, and how they have changed over time.

The Lazard LCOE estimates are calculated and presented in nominal terms.  They show the price, in $/MWHr, that would need to be charged over a 20-year time horizon for such a project to break even.  For comparability over time, as well as to produce estimates that can be compared directly to the PPA contract prices that I will discuss below, I have converted those prices from nominal to real terms in constant 2017 dollars.  Two steps are involved.  First, the fixed nominal LCOE prices over 20 years will be falling over time in real terms due to general inflation.  They were adjusted to the prices of their respective initial year (i.e. the relevant year from 2009 to 2018) using an inflation rate of 2.25% (which is the rate used for the PPA figures discussed below, the rate the EIA assumed in its 2018 Annual Energy Outlook report, and the rate which appears also to be what Lazard assumed for general cost escalation factors).  Second, those prices for the years between 2009 and 2018 were all then converted to constant 2017 prices based on actual inflation between those years and 2017.

The result is the chart shown at the top of this post.  The LCOEs in 2018 (in 2017$) were $33 per MWHr for a newly built utility-scale solar photovoltaic system and also for an on-shore wind installation, $44 per MWHr for a new natural gas combined cycle plant, $78 for a new coal-burning plant, and $115 for a new nuclear power plant.  The natural gas plant would cost one-third more than a solar or wind plant, coal would cost 2.4 times as much, and a nuclear plant 3.5 times as much.  Note also that since the adjustments for inflation are the same for each of the power generation methods, their costs relative to each other (in ratio terms) are the same for the LCOEs expressed in nominal cost terms.  And it is their costs relative to each other which most matters.

The solar prices have fallen especially dramatically.  The 2018 LCOE was only one-tenth of what it was in 2009.  The cost of wind generation has also fallen sharply over the period, to about one-quarter in 2018 of what it was in 2009.  The cost from gas combined cycle plants (the most efficient gas technology, and is now widely used) also fell, but only by about 40%, while the cost of coal or nuclear were roughly flat or rising, depending on precisely what time period is used.

There is good reason to believe the cost of solar technology will continue to decline.  It is still a relatively new technology, and work in labs around the world are developing solar technologies that are both more efficient and less costly to manufacture and install.

Current solar installations (based on crystalline silicon technology) will typically have conversion efficiencies of 15 to 17%.  And panels with efficiencies of up to 22% are now available in the market – a gain already on the order of 30 to 45% over the 15 to 17% efficiency of current systems.  But a chart of how solar efficiencies have improved over time (in laboratory settings) shows there is good reason to believe that the efficiencies of commercially available systems will continue to improve in the years to come.  While there are theoretical upper limits, labs have developed solar cell technologies with efficiencies as high as 46% (as of January 2019).

Particularly exciting in recent years has been the development of what are called “perovskite” solar technologies.  While their current efficiencies (of up to 28%, for a tandem cell) are just modestly better than purely crystalline silicon solar cells, they have achieved this in work spanning only half a decade.  Crystalline silicon cells only saw such an improvement in efficiencies in research that spanned more than four decades.  And perhaps more importantly, perovskite cells are much simpler to manufacture, and hence much cheaper.

Based on such technologies, one could see solar efficiencies doubling within a few years, from the current 15 to 17% to say 30 to 35%.  And with a doubling in efficiency, one will need only half as many solar panels to produce the same megawatts of power, and thus also only half as many frames to hold the panels, half as much wiring to link them together, and half as much land.  Coupled with simplified and hence cheaper manufacturing processes (such as is possible for perovskite cells), there is every reason to believe prices will continue to fall.

While there can be no certainty in precisely how this will develop, a simple extrapolation of recent cost trends can give an indication of what might come.  Assuming costs continue to change at the same annual rate that they had over the most recent five years (2013 to 2018), one would find for the years up to 2023:

If these trends hold, then the LCOE (in 2017$) of solar power will have fallen to $13 per MWHr by 2023, wind will have fallen to $18, and gas will be at $32 (or 2.5 times the LCOE of solar in that year, and 80% above the LCOE of wind).  And coal (at $70) and nuclear (at $153) will be totally uncompetitive.

This is an important transition.  With the dramatic declines in the past decade in the costs for solar power plants, and to a lesser extent wind, these clean sources of power are now more cost competitive than traditional, polluting, sources.  And this is all without any special subsidies for the clean energy.  But before looking at the implications of this for power generation, as a reality check it is good first to examine whether the declining costs of solar power have been reflected in actual market prices for such power.  We will see that they have.

C.  The Market Prices for Solar Generated Power

Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs) are long-term contracts where a power generator (typically an independent power producer) agrees to supply electric power at some contracted capacity and at some price to a purchaser (typically a power utility or electric grid operator).  These are competitively determined (different parties interested in building new power plants will bid for such contracts, with the lowest price winning) and are a direct market measure of the cost of energy from such a source.

The Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, under a contract with the US Department of Energy, produces an annual report that reviews and summarizes PPA contracts for recent utility-scale solar power projects, including the agreed prices for the power.  The most recent was published in September 2018, and covers 2018 (partially) and before.  While the report covers both solar photovoltaic and concentrating solar thermal projects, the figures of interest to us here (and comparable to the Lazard LCOEs discussed above) are the PPAs for the solar photovoltaic projects.

The PPA prices provided in the report were all calculated by the authors on a levelized basis and in terms of 2017 prices.  This was done to put them all on a comparable basis to each other, as the contractual terms of the specific contracts could differ (e.g. some had price escalation clauses and some did not).  Averages by year were worked out with the different projects weighted by generation capacity.

The PPA prices are presented by the year the contracts were signed.  If one then plots these PPA prices with a one year lag and compare them to the Lazard estimated LCOE prices of that year, one finds a remarkable degree of overlap:

This high degree of overlap is extraordinary.  Only the average PPA price for 2010 (reflecting the 2009 average price lagged one year) is off, but would have been close with a one and a half year lag rather than a one year lag.  Note also that while the Lawrence Berkeley report has PPA prices going back to 2006, the figures for the first several years are based on extremely small samples (just one project in 2006, one in 2007, and three in 2008, before rising to 16 in 2009 and 30 in 2010).  For that reason I have not plotted the 2006 to 2008 PPA prices (which would have been 2007 to 2009 if lagged one year), but they also would have been below the Lazard LCOE curve.

What might be behind this extraordinary overlap when the PPA prices are lagged one year?  Two possible explanations present themselves.  One is that the power producers when making their PPA bids realize that there will be a lag from when the bids are prepared to when the winning bidder is announced and construction of the project begins.  With the costs of solar generation falling so quickly, it is possible that the PPA bids reflect what they know will be a lag between when the bid is prepared and when the project has to be built (with solar panels purchased and other costs incurred).  If that lag is one year, one will see overlap such as that found for the two curves.

Another possible explanation for the one-year shift observed between the PPA prices (by date of contract signing) and the Lazard LCOE figures is that the Lazard estimates labeled for some year (2018 for example) might in fact represent data on the cost of the technologies as of the prior year (2017 in this example).  One cannot be sure from what they report.  Or the remarkable degree of overlap might be a result of some combination of these two possible explanations, or something else.

But for whatever reason, the two estimates move almost exactly in parallel over time, and hence show an almost identical rate of decline for both the cost of generating power from solar photovoltaic sources and in the market PPA prices for such power.  And it is that rapid rate of decline which is important.

It is also worth noting that the “bump up” in the average PPA price curve in 2017 (shown in the chart as 2018 with the one year lag) reflects in part that a significant number of the projects in the 2017 sample of PPAs included, as part of the contract, a power storage component to store a portion of the solar-generated power for use in the evening or night.  But these additional costs for storage were remarkably modest, and were even less in several projects in the partial-year 2018 sample.  Specifically, Nevada Energy (as the offtaker) announced in June 2018 that it had contracted for three major solar projects that would include storage of power of up to one-quarter of generation capacity for four hours, with overall PPA prices (levelized, in 2017 prices) for both the generation and the storage of just $22.8, $23.5, and $26.4 per MWHr (i.e. 2.28 cents, 2.35 cents, and 2.64 cents per kWh, respectively).

The PPA prices reported can also be used to examine how the prices vary by region.  One should expect solar power to be cheaper in southern latitudes than in northern ones, and in dry, sunny, desert areas than in regions with more extensive cloud cover.  And this has led to the criticism by skeptics that solar power can only be competitive in places such as the US Southwest.

But this is less of an issue than one might assume.  Dividing up the PPA contracts by region (with no one-year lag in this chart), one finds:

Prices found in the PPAs are indeed lower in the Southwest, California, and Texas.  But the PPA prices for projects in the Southeast, the Midwest, and the Northwest fell at a similar pace as those in the more advantageous regions (and indeed, at a more rapid pace up to 2014).  And note that the prices in those less advantageous regions are similar to what they were in the more advantageous regions just a year or two before.  Finally, the absolute differences in prices have become relatively modest in the last few years.

The observed market prices for power generated by solar photovoltaic systems therefore appear to be consistent with the bottom-up LCOE estimates of Lazard – indeed remarkably so.  Both show a sharp fall in solar energy prices/costs over the last decade, and sharp falls both for the US as a whole and by region.  The next question is whether we see this reflected in investment in additions to new power generation capacity, and in the power generated by that capacity.

D.  Additions to Power Generation Capacity, and in Power Generation

The cost of power from a new solar or wind plant is now below the cost from gas (while the cost of new coal or nuclear generation capacity is totally uncompetitive).  But the LCOEs indicate that the cost advantage relative to gas is relatively recent in the case of solar (starting from 2016), and while a bit longer for wind, the significant gap in favor of wind only opened up in 2014.  One needs also to recognize that these are average or mid-point estimates of costs, and that in specific cases the relative costs will vary depending on local conditions.  Thus while solar or wind power is now cheaper on average across the US, in some particular locale a gas plant might be less expensive (especially if the costs resulting from its pollution are not charged).  Finally, and as discussed above, there may be time-of-day issues that the new capacity may be needed for, with this affecting the choices made.

Thus while one should expect a shift towards solar and wind over the last several years, and away from traditional fuels, the shift will not be absolute and immediate.  What do we see?

First, in terms of the gross additions to power sector generating capacity:

The chart shows the gross additions to power capacity, in megawatts, with both historical figures (up through 2018) and as reflected in plans filed with the US Department of Energy (for 2019 and 2020, with the plans as filed as of end-2018).  The data for this (and the other charts in this section) come from the most recent release of the Electric Power Annual of the Energy Information Agency (EIA) (which was for 2017, and was released on October 22, 2018), plus from the Electric Power Monthly of February, 2019, also from the Energy Information Agency (where the February issue each year provides complete data for the prior calendar year, i.e. for 2018 in this case).

The planned additions to capacity (2019 and 2020 in the chart) provide an indication of what might happen over the next few years, but must be interpreted cautiously.  While probably pretty good for the next few years, biases will start to enter as one goes further into the future.  Power producers are required to file their plans for new capacity (as well as for retirements of existing capacity) with the Department of Energy, for transparency and to help ensure capacity (locally as well as nationally) remains adequate.  But these reported plans should be approached cautiously.  There is a bias as projects that require a relatively long lead time (such as gas plants, as well as coal and especially nuclear) will be filed years ahead, while the more flexible, shorter construction periods, required for solar and wind plants means that these plans will only be filed with the Department of Energy close to when that capacity will be built.  But for the next few years, the plans should provide an indication of how the market is developing.

As seen in the chart, solar and wind taken together accounted for the largest single share of gross additions to capacity, at least through 2017.  While there was then a bump up in new gas generation capacity in 2018, this is expected to fall back to earlier levels in 2019 and 2020.  And these three sources (solar, wind, and gas) accounted for almost all (93%) of the gross additions to new capacity over 2012 to 2018, with this expected to continue.

New coal-burning plants, in contrast, were already low and falling in 2012 and 2013, and there have been no new ones since then.  Nor are any planned.  This is as one would expect based on the LCOE estimates discussed above – new coal plants are simply not cost competitive.  And the additions to nuclear and other capacity have also been low.  “Other” capacity is a miscellaneous category that includes hydro, petroleum-fueled plants such as diesel, as well as other renewables such as from the burning of waste or biomass. The one bump up, in 2016, is due to a nuclear power plant coming on-line that year.  It was unit #2 of the Watts Bar nuclear power plant built by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), and had been under construction for decades.  Indeed the most recent nuclear plant completed in the US before this one was unit #1 at the same TVA plant, which came on-line 20 years before in 1996.  Even aside from any nuclear safety concerns, nuclear plants are simply not economically competitive with other sources of power.

The above are gross additions to power generating capacity, reflecting what new plants are being built.  But old, economically or technologically obsolete, plants are also being retired, so what matters to the overall shift in power generation capacity is what has happened to net generation capacity:

What stands out here is the retirement of coal-burning plants.  And while the retirements might appear to diminish in the plans going forward, this may largely be due to retirement plans only being announced shortly before they happen.  It is also possible that political pressure from the Trump administration to keep coal-burning plants open, despite their higher costs (and their much higher pollution), might be a factor.  We will see what happens.

The cumulative impact of these net additions to capacity (relative to 2010 as the base year) yields:

Solar plus wind accounts for the largest addition to capacity, followed by gas.  Indeed, each of these accounts for more than 100% of the growth in overall capacity, as there has been a net reduction in the nuclear plus other category, and especially in coal.

But what does this mean in terms of the change in the mix of electric power generation capacity in the US?  Actually, less than one might have thought, as one can see in a chart of the shares:

The share of coal has come down, but remains high, and similarly for nuclear (plus miscellaneous other) capacity.  Gas remains the highest and has risen as a share, while solar and wind, while rising at a rapid pace relative to where it was to start, remains the smallest shares (of the categories used here).

The reason for these relatively modest changes in shares is that while solar and wind plus gas account for more than 100% of the net additions to capacity, that net addition has been pretty small.  Between 2010 and 2018, the net addition to US electric power generation capacity was just 58.8 thousand megawatts, or an increase over eight years of just 5.7% over what capacity was in 2010 (1,039.1 thousand megawatts).  A big share of something small will still be small.

So even though solar and wind are now the lowest cost sources of new power generation, the very modest increase in the total power capacity needed has meant that not that much has been built.  And much of what has been built has been in replacement of nuclear and especially coal capacity.  As we will discuss below, the economic issue then is not whether solar and wind are the cheapest source of new capacity (which they are), but whether new solar and wind are more economic than what it costs to continue to operate existing coal and nuclear plants.  That is a different question, and we will see that while new solar and wind are now starting to be a lower cost option than continuing to operate older coal (but not nuclear) plants, this development (a critically important development) has only been recent.

Why did the US require such a small increase in power generation capacity in recent years?  As seen in the chart below, it is not because GDP has not grown, but rather because energy efficiency (real GDP per MWHr of power) improved tremendously, at least until 2017:

From 2010 to 2017, real GDP rose by 15.7% (2.1% a year on average), but GDP per MWHr of power generated rose by 18.3%.  That meant that power generation (note that generation is the relevant issue here, not capacity) could fall by 2.2% despite the higher level of GDP.  Improving energy efficiency was a key priority during the Obama years, and it appears to have worked well.  It is better for efficiency to rise than to have to produce more power, even if that power comes from a clean source such as solar or wind.

This reversed direction in 2018.  It is not clear why, but might be an early indication that the policies of the Trump administration are harming efficiency in our economy.  However, this is still just one year of data, and one will need to wait to see whether this was an aberration or a start of a new, and worrisome, trend.

Which brings us to generation.  While the investment decision is whether or not to add capacity, and if so then of what form (e.g. solar or gas or whatever), what is ultimately needed is the power generated.  This depends on the capacity available and then on the decision of how much of that capacity to use to generate the power needed at any given moment.  One needs to keep in mind that power in general is not stored (other than still very limited storage of solar and wind power), but rather has to be generated at the moment needed.  And since power demand goes up and down over the course of the day (higher during the daylight hours and lower at night), as well as over the course of the year (generally higher during the summer, due to air conditioning, and lower in other seasons), one needs total generation capacity sufficient to meet whatever the peak load might be.  This means that during all other times there will be excess, unutilized, capacity.  Indeed, since one will want to have a safety margin, one will want to have total power generation capacity of even more than whatever the anticipated peak load might be in any locale.

There will always, then, be excess capacity, just sometimes more and sometimes less.  And hence decisions will be necessary as to what of the available capacity to use at any given moment.  While complex, the ultimate driver of this will be (or at least should be, in a rational system) the short-run costs of producing power from the possible alternative sources available in the region where the power is needed.  These costs will be examined in the next section below.  But for here, we will look at how generation has changed over the last several years.

In terms of the change in power generation by source relative to the levels in 2010, one finds:

Gas now accounts for the largest increment in generation over this period, with solar and wind also growing (steadily) but by significantly less.  Coal powered generation, in contrast, fell substantially, while nuclear and other sources were basically flat.  And as noted above, due to increased efficiency in the use of power (until 2017), total power use was flat to falling a bit, even as GDP grew substantially.  This reversed in 2018  when efficiency fell, and gas generated power rose to provide for the resulting increased power demands.  Solar and wind continued on the same path as before, and coal generation still fell at a similar pace as before.  But it remains to be seen whether 2018 marked a change in the previous trend in efficiency gains, or was an aberration.

Why did power generation from gas rise by more than from solar and wind over the period, despite the larger increase in solar plus wind capacity than in gas generation capacity?  In part this reflects the cost factors which we will discuss in the next section below.  But in part one needs also to recognize factors inherent in the technologies.  Solar generation can only happen during the day (and also when there is no cloud cover), while wind generation depends on when the wind blows.  Without major power storage, this will limit how much solar and wind can be used.

The extent to which some source of power is in fact used over some period (say a year), as a share of what would be generated if the power plant operated at 100% of capacity for 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, is defined as the “capacity factor”.  In 2018, the capacity factor realized for solar photovoltaic systems was 26.1% while for wind it was 37.4%.  But for no power source is it 100%.  For natural gas combined cycle plants (the primary source of gas generation), the capacity factor was 57.6% in 2018 (up from 51.3% in 2017, due to the jump in power demand in 2018).  This is well below the theoretical maximum of 100% as in general one will be operating at less than peak capacity (plus plants need to be shut down periodically for maintenance and other servicing).

Thus increments in “capacity”, as measured, will therefore not tell the whole story.  How much such capacity is used also matters.  And the capacity factors for solar and wind will in general be less than what they will be for the other primary sources of power generation, such as gas, coal, and nuclear (and excluding the special case of plants designed solely to operate for short periods of peak load times, or plants used as back-ups or for cases of emergencies).  But how much less depends only partly on the natural constraints on the clean technologies.  It also depends on marginal operating costs, as we will discuss below.

Finally, while gas plus solar and wind have grown in terms of power generation since 2010, and coal has declined (and nuclear and other sources largely unchanged), coal-fired generation remains important.  In terms of the percentage shares of overall power generation:

While coal has fallen as a share, from about 45% of US power generation in 2010 to 27% in 2018, it remains high.  Only gas is significantly higher (at 35% in 2010).  Nuclear and other sources (such as hydro) accounts for 29%, with nuclear alone accounting for two-thirds of this and other sources the remaining one-third.  Solar and wind have grown steadily, and at a rapid rate relative to where they were in 2010, but in 2018 still accounted only for about 8% of US power generation.

Thus while coal has come down, there is still very substantial room for further substitution out of coal, by either solar and wind or by natural gas.  The cost factors that will enter into this decision on substituting out of coal will be discussed next.

E.  The Cost Factors That Enter in the Decisions on What Plants to Build, What Plants to Keep in Operation, and What Plants to Use

The Lazard analysis of costs presents estimates not only for the LCOE of newly built power generation plants, but also figures that can be used to arrive at the costs of operating a plant to produce power on any given day, and of operating a plant plus keeping it maintained for a year.  One needs to know these different costs in order to address different questions.  The LCOE is used to decide whether to build a new plant and keep it in operation for a period (20 years is used); the operating cost is used to decide which particular power plant to run at any given time to generate the power then needed (from among all the plants up and available to run that day); while the operating cost plus the cost of regular annual maintenance is used in the decision of whether to keep a particular plant open for another year.

The Lazard figures are not ideal for this, as they give cost figures for a newly built plant, using the technology and efficiencies available today.  The cost to maintain and operate an older plant will be higher than this, both because older technologies were less efficient but also simply because they are older and hence more liable to break down (and hence cost more to keep running) than a new plant.  But the estimates for a new plant do give us a sense of what the floor for such costs might be – the true costs for currently existing plants of various ages will be somewhat higher.

Lazard also recognized that there will be a range of such costs for a particular type of plant, depending on the specifics of the particular location and other such factors.  Their report therefore provides both what it labels low end and high end estimates, and with a mid-point estimate then based usually on the average between the two.  The figures shown in the chart at the top of this post are the mid-point estimates, but in the tables below we will show the low and high end cost estimates as well.  These figures are helpful in providing a sense of the range in the costs one should expect, although how Lazard defined the range they used is not fully clear.  They are not of the absolutely lowest possible cost plant nor absolutely highest possible cost plant.  Rather, the low end figures appear to be averages of the costs of some share of the lowest cost plants (possibly the lowest one third), and similarly for the high end figures.

The cost figures below are from the 2018 Lazard cost estimates (the most recent year available).  The operating and maintenance costs are by their nature current expenditures, and hence their costs will be in current, i.e. 2018, prices.  The LCOE estimates of Lazard are different.  As was noted above, these are the levelized prices that would need to be charged for the power generated to cover the costs of building and then operating and maintaining the plant over its assumed (20 year) lifetime.  They therefore need to be adjusted to reflect current prices.  For the chart at the top of this post, they were put in terms of 2017 prices (to make them consistent with the PPA prices presented in the Berkeley report discussed above).  But for the purposes here, we will put them in 2018 prices to ensure consistency with the prices for the operating and maintenance costs.  The difference is small (just 2.2%).

The cost estimates derived from the Lazard figures are then:

(all costs in 2018 prices)

A.  Levelized Cost of Energy from a New Power Plant:  $/MWHr

Solar

Wind

Gas

Coal

Nuclear

low end

$31.23

$22.65

$32.02

$46.85

$87.46

mid-point

$33.58

$33.19

$44.90

$79.26

$117.52

high end

$35.92

$43.73

$57.78

$111.66

$147.58

B.  Cost to Maintain and Operate a Plant Each year, including for Fuel:  $/MWHr

Solar

Wind

Gas

Coal

Nuclear

low end

$4.00

$9.24

$24.38

$23.19

$23.87

mid-point

$4.66

$10.64

$26.51

$31.30

$25.11

high end

$5.33

$12.04

$28.64

$39.41

$26.35

C.  Short-term Variable Cost to Operate a Plant, including for Fuel:  $/MWHr

Solar

Wind

Gas

Coal

Nuclear

low end

$0.00

$0.00

$23.16

$14.69

$9.63

mid-point

$0.00

$0.00

$25.23

$18.54

$9.63

high end

$0.00

$0.00

$27.31

$22.40

$9.63

A number of points follow from these cost estimates:

a)  First, and as was discussed above, the LCOE estimates indicate that for the question of what new type of power plant to build, it will in general be cheapest to obtain new power from a solar or wind plant.  The mid-point LCOE estimates for solar and wind are well below the costs of power from gas plants, and especially below the costs from coal or nuclear plants.

But also as noted before, local conditions vary and there will in fact be a range of costs for different types of plants.  The Lazard estimates indicate that a gas plant with costs at the low end of a reasonable range (estimated to be about $32 per MWHr) would be competitive with solar or wind plants at the mid-point of their cost range (about $33 to $34 per MWHr), and below the costs of a solar plant at the high end of its cost range ($36) and especially a wind plant at its high end of its costs ($44).  However, there are not likely to be many such cases:  Gas plants with a cost at their mid-point estimate would not be competitive, and even less so for gas plants with a cost near their high end estimate.

Furthermore, even the lowest cost coal and nuclear plants would be far from competitive with solar or wind plants when considering the building of new generation capacity.  This is consistent with what we saw in Section D above, of no new coal or nuclear plants being built in recent years (with the exception of one nuclear plant whose construction started decades ago and was only finished in 2016).

b)  More interesting is the question of whether it is economic to build new solar or wind plants to substitute for existing gas, coal, or nuclear plants.  The figures in panel B of the table on the cost to operate and maintain a plant for another year (all in terms of $/MWHr) can give us a sense of whether this is worthwhile.  Keeping in mind that these are going to be low estimates (as they are the costs for newly built plants, using the technologies available today, not for existing ones which were built possibly many years ago), the figures suggest that it would make economic sense to build new solar and wind plants (at their LCOE costs) and decommission all but the most efficient coal burning plants.

However, the figures also suggest that this will not be the case for most of the existing gas or nuclear plants.  For such plants, with their capital costs already incurred, the cost to maintain and operate them for a further year is in the range of $24 to $29 (per MWHr) for gas plants and $24 to $26 for nuclear plants.  Even recognizing that these costs estimates will be low (as they are based on what the costs would be for a new plant, not existing ones), only the more efficient solar and wind plants would have an LCOE which is less.  But they are close, and are on the cusp of the point where it would be economic to build new solar and wind plants and decommission existing gas and nuclear plants, just as this is already the case for most coal plants.

c)  Panel C then provides figures to address the question of which power plants to operate, for those which are available for use on any given day.  With no short-term variable cost to generate power from solar or wind sources (they burn no fuel), it will always make sense to use those sources first when they are available.  The short-term cost to operate a nuclear power plant is also fairly low ($9.63 per MWHr in the Lazard estimates, with no significant variation in their estimates).  Unlike other plants, it is difficult to turn nuclear plants on and off, so such plants will generally be operated as baseload plants kept always on (other than for maintenance periods).

But it is interesting that, provided a coal burning plant was kept active and not decommissioned, the Lazard figures suggest that the next cheapest source of power (if one ignores the pollution costs) will be from burning coal.  The figures indicate coal plants are expensive to maintain (the difference between the figures in panel B and in panel C) but then cheap to run if they have been kept operational.  This would explain why we have seen many coal burning plants decommissioned in recent years (new solar and wind capacity is cheaper than the cost of keeping a coal burning plant maintained and operating), but that if the coal burning plant has been kept operational, that it will then typically be cheaper to run rather than a gas plant.

d)  Finally, existing gas plants will cost between $23 and $27 per MWHr to run, mostly for the cost of the gas itself.  Maintenance costs are low.  These figures are somewhat less than the cost of building new solar or wind capacity, although not by much.

But there is another consideration as well.  Suppose one needs to add to night-time capacity, so solar power will not be of use (assuming storage is not an economic option).  Assume also that wind is not an option for some reason (perhaps the particular locale).  The LCOE figures indicate that a new gas plant would then be the next best alternative.  But once this gas plant is built, it will be available also for use during the day.  The question then is whether it would be cheaper to run that gas plant during the day also, or to build solar capacity to provide the day-time power.

And the answer is that at these costs, which exclude the costs from the pollution generated, it would be cheaper to run the gas plant.  The LCOE costs for new solar power ranges from $31 to $36 per MWHr (panel A above), while the variable cost of operating a gas plant built to supply nighttime capacity ranges between $23 and $27 (panel C).  While the difference is not huge, it is still significant.

This may explain in part why new gas generation capacity is not only being built in the US, but also is then being used more than other sources for additional generation, even though new solar and wind capacity would be cheaper.  And part of the reason for this is that the costs imposed on others from the pollution generated by burning fossil fuels are not being borne by the power plant operators.  This will be examined in the next section below.

F.  The Impact of Including the Cost of Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Burning fossil fuels generates pollution.  Coal is especially polluting, in many different ways. But I will focus here on just one area of damage caused by the burning of fossil fuels, which is that from their generation of greenhouse gases.  These gases are warming the earth’s atmosphere, with this then leading to an increased frequency of extreme weather events, from floods and droughts to severe storms, and hurricanes of greater intensity.  While one cannot attribute any particular storm to the impact of a warmer planet, the increased frequency of such storms in recent decades is clearly a consequence of a warmer planet.  It is the same as the relationship of smoking to lung cancer.  While one cannot with certainty attribute a particular case of lung cancer to smoking (there are cases of lung cancer among people who do not smoke), it is well established that there is an increased likelihood and frequency of lung cancer among smokers.

When the costs from the damage created from greenhouse gases are not borne by the party responsible for the emissions, that party will ignore those costs.  In the case of power production, they do not take into account such costs in deciding whether to use clean sources (solar or wind) to generate the power needed, or to burn coal or gas.  But the costs are still there and are being imposed on others.  Hence economists have recommended that those responsible for such decisions face a price which reflects such costs.  A specific proposal, discussed in an earlier post on this blog, is to charge a tax of $40 per ton of CO2 emitted.  All the revenue collected by that tax would then be returned in equal per capita terms to the American population.  Applied to all sources of greenhouse gas emissions (not just power), the tax would lead to an annual rebate of almost $500 per person, or $2,000 for a family of four.  And since it is the rich who account most (in per person terms) for greenhouse gas emissions, it is estimated that such a tax and redistribution would lead to those in the lowest seven deciles of the population (the lowest 70%) receiving more on average than what they would pay (directly or indirectly), while only the richest 30% would end up paying more on a net basis.

Such a tax on greenhouse gas emissions would have an important effect on the decision of what sources of power to use when power is needed.  As noted in the section above, at current costs it is cheaper to use gas-fired generation, and even more so coal-fired generation, if those plants have been built and are available for operation, than it would cost to build new solar or wind plants to provide such power.  The costs are getting close to each other, but are not there yet.  If gas and coal burning plants do not need to worry about the costs imposed on others from the burning of their fuels, such plants may be kept in operation for some time.

A tax on the greenhouse gases emitted would change this calculus, even with all other costs as they are today.  One can calculate from figures presented in the Lazard report what the impact would be.  For the analysis here, I have looked at the impact of charging $20 per ton of CO2 emitted, $40 per ton of CO2, or $60 per ton of CO2.  Analyses of the social cost of CO2 emissions come up with a price of around $40 per ton, and my aim here was to examine a generous span around this cost.

Also entering is how much CO2 is emitted per MWHr of power produced.  Figures in the Lazard report (and elsewhere) put this at 0.51 tons of CO2 per MWHr for gas burning plants, and 0.92 tons of CO2 per MWHr for coal burning plants.  As has been commonly stated, the direct emissions of CO2 from gas burning plants is on the order of half of that from coal burning plants.

[Side note:  This does not take into account that a certain portion of natural gas leaks out directly into the air at some point in the process from when it is pulled from the ground, then transported via pipelines, and then fed into the final use (e.g. at a power plant).  While perhaps small as a percentage of all the gas consumed (the EPA estimates a leak rate of 1.4%, although others estimate it to be more), natural gas (which is primarily methane) is itself a highly potent greenhouse gas with an impact on atmospheric warming that is 34 times as great as the same weight of CO2 over a 100 year time horizon, and 86 times as great over a 20 year horizon.  If one takes such leakage into account (of even just 1.4%), and adds this warming impact to that of the CO2 that is produced by the gas that has not leaked out but is burned, natural gas turns out to have a similar if not greater atmospheric warming impact as that resulting from the burning of coal.  However, for the calculations below, I will leave out the impact from leakage.  Including this would lead to even stronger results.]

One then has:

D.  Cost of Greenhouse Gas Emissions:  $/MWhr

Solar

Wind

Gas

Coal

Nuclear

Tons of CO2 Emitted per MWHr

0.000

0.000

0.510

0.920

0.000

Cost at $20/ton CO2

$0.00

$0.00

$10.20

$18.40

$0.00

Cost at $40/ton CO2

$0.00

$0.00

$20.40

$36.80

$0.00

Cost at $60/ton CO2

$0.00

$0.00

$30.60

$55.20

$0.00

E.  Levelized Cost of Energy for a New Power Plant, including Cost of Greenhouse Gas Emissions (mid-point figures):  $/MWHr

Solar

Wind

Gas

Coal

Nuclear

Cost at $20/ton CO2

$33.58

$33.19

$55.10

$97.66

$117.52

Cost at $40/ton CO2

$33.58

$33.19

$65.30

$116.06

$117.52

Cost at $60/ton CO2

$33.58

$33.19

$75.50

$134.46

$117.52

F.  Short-term Variable Cost to Operate a Plant, including Fuel and Cost of Greenhouse Gas Emissions (mid-point figures):  $/MWHr

Solar

Wind

Gas

Coal

Nuclear

Cost at $20/ton CO2

$0.00

$0.00

$35.43

$36.94

$9.63

Cost at $40/ton CO2

$0.00

$0.00

$45.63

$55.34

$9.63

Cost at $60/ton CO2

$0.00

$0.00

$55.83

$73.74

$9.63

Panel D shows what would be paid, per MWHr, if greenhouse gas emissions were charged for at a rate of $20 per ton of CO2, of $40 per ton, or of $60 per ton.  The impact would be significant, ranging from $10 to $31 per MWHr for gas and $18 to $55 for coal.

If these costs are then included in the Levelized Cost of Energy figures (using the mid-point estimates for the LCOE), one gets the costs shown in Panel E.  The costs of new power generation capacity from solar or wind sources (as well as nuclear) are unchanged as they have no CO2 emissions.  But the full costs of new gas or coal fired generation capacity will now mean that such sources are even less competitive than before, as their costs now also reflect, in part, the damage done as a result of their greenhouse gas emissions.

But perhaps most interesting is the impact on the choice of whether to keep burning gas or coal in plants that have already been built and remain available for operation.  This is provided in Panel F, which shows the short-term variable cost (per MWHr) of power generated by the different sources.  These short-term costs were primarily the cost of the fuel used, but now also include the cost to compensate for the damage from the resulting greenhouse gas emissions.

If gas as well as coal had to pay for the damages caused by their greenhouse gas emissions, then even at a cost of just $20 per ton of CO2 emitted they would not be competitive with building new solar or wind plants (whose LCOEs, in Panel E, are less).  At a cost of $40 or $60 per ton of CO2 emitted, they would be far from competitive, with costs that are 40% to 120% higher.  There would be a strong incentive then to build new solar and wind plants to serve what they can (including just the day time markets), while existing gas plants (primarily) would in the near term be kept in reserve for service at night or at other times when solar and wind generation is not possible.

G.  Summary and Conclusion

The cost of new clean sources of power generation capacity, wind and especially solar, has plummeted over the last decade, and it is now cheaper to build new solar or wind capacity than to build new gas, coal, and especially nuclear capacity.  One sees this not only in estimates based on assessments of the underlying costs, but also in the actual market prices for new generation capacity (the PPA prices in such contracts).  Both have plummeted, and indeed at an identical pace.

While it was only relatively recently that the solar and wind generation costs have fallen below the cost of generation from gas, one does see these relative costs reflected in the new power generation capacity built in recent years.  Solar plus wind (together) account for the largest single source of new capacity, with gas also high.  And there have been no new coal plants since 2013 (nor nuclear, with the exception of one plant coming online which had been under construction for decades).

But while solar plus wind plants accounted for the largest share of new generation capacity in recent years, the impact on the overall mix was low.  And that is because not that much new generation capacity has been needed.  Up until to at least 2017, efficiency in energy use was improving to such an extent that no net new capacity was needed despite robust GDP growth.  A large share of something small will still be something small.

However, the costs of building new solar or wind generation capacity have now fallen to the point where it is cheaper to build new solar or wind capacity than it costs to maintain and keep in operation many of the existing coal burning power plants.  This is particularly the case for the older coal plants, with their older technologies and higher maintenance costs.  Thus one should see many of these older plants being decommissioned, and one does.

But it is still cheaper, when one ignores the cost of the damage done by the resulting pollution, to maintain and operate existing gas burning plants, than it would cost to build new solar or wind plants to generate the power they are able to provide.  And since some of the new gas burning plants being built may be needed to add to night-time generation capacity, this means that such plants will also be used to generate power by burning gas during the day, instead of installing solar capacity.

This cost advantage only holds, however, because gas-burning plants do not have to pay for the costs resulting from the damage their pollution causes.  While they pollute in many different ways, one is from the greenhouse gases they emit.  But if one charged them just $20 for every ton of CO2 released into the atmosphere when the gas is burned, the result would be different.  It would then be more cost competitive to build new solar or wind capacity to provide power whenever they can, and to save the gas burning plants for those times when such clean power is not possible.

There is therefore a strong case for charging such a fee.  However, many of those who had previously supported such an approach to address global warming have backed away in recent months, arguing that it would be politically impossible.  That assessment of the politics might be correct, but it really makes no sense.  First, it would be politically important that whatever revenues are generated are returned in full to the population, and on an equal per person basis.  While individual situations will of course vary (and those who lose out on a net basis, or perceive that they will, will complain the loudest), assessments based on current consumption patterns indicate that those in the lowest seven deciles of income (the lowest 70%) will on average come out ahead, while only those in the richest 30% will pay more.  It is the rich who, per person, account for the largest share of greenhouse gas emissions, creating costs that others are bearing.  And a redistribution from the richest 30% to the poorest 70% would be a positive redistribution.

But second, the alternative to reducing greenhouse gas emissions would need to be some approach based on top-down directives (central planning in essence), or a centrally directed system of subsidies that aims to offset the subsidies implicit in not requiring those burning fossil fuels to pay for the damages they cause, by subsidizing other sources of power even more.  Such approaches are not only complex and costly, but rarely work well in practice.  And they end up costing more than a fee-based system would.  The political argument being made in their favor ultimately rests on the assumption that by hiding the higher costs they can be made politically more acceptable.  But relying on deception is unlikely to be sustainable for long.

The sharp fall in costs for clean energy of the last decade has created an opportunity to switch our power supply to clean sources at little to no cost.  This would have been impossible just a few years ago.  It would be unfortunate in the extreme if we were to let this opportunity pass.