Wind Energy to the Rescue

By Jonathan Marshall

It can be fickle, intermittent and sometimes unpredictable. But last month, clean, inexpensive wind energy helped major parts of the country cope with soaring demand for electricity as the “polar vortex” sent temperatures plunging across the Midwest and East Coast.

As winter storms swept across the Upper Midwest, the Nebraska Public Power District coped with record winter electricity demand by getting 13 percent of its total load from wind energy. Wind turbines also kept lights on as winter storms knocked out traditional power plants in the Mid-Atlantic and Great Lakes states. Plentiful wind energy may have helped save customers in the Mid-Atlantic and Great Lakes states “millions if not tens of millions of dollars” by displacing natural gas-fired generation, whose price soared as supplies became tight.

Wind farms helped Nebraska get through the recent spell of frigid weather. (Photo by Nebraska Public Power District.)

In Texas, according to the American Wind Energy Association, available wind power of 2,000 megawatts “was the critical difference keeping heaters running as the grid operator struggled with numerous outages at conventional power plants. More than 13,000 MW of conventional power plants were down for maintenance, while another 2,000 MW of conventional power plants experienced unplanned outages, forcing the grid operator to resort to emergency procedures.”

That rescue operation was reminiscent of 2011, when “a bitter winter storm shut down 214 generators of all kinds the week of the Dallas Super Bowl,” one industry report noted that year. “Utilities had to impose rotating blackouts affecting 3.2 million customers on Feb. 3, the worst day of that emergency. Wind generation ranged between 3,000 to 4,500 MW hourly in the morning of that day, as the outages at coal- and gas-fired power plants spread and the threat of a system-wide collapse loomed.”

Such incidents have helped redeem the reputation of wind, which suffered in February 2008 when a sudden, unexpected drop in wind energy, coupled with a surge of demand, forced the Texas power grid to go into emergency mode.

According to Michael Goggin of the American Wind Energy Association, last month’s events “highlight the value of wind energy for diversifying our energy mix, improving energy reliability and reducing energy costs for homes and businesses. Diversity inherently makes the power system more reliable by protecting against the unexpected failures that afflict all energy sources from time to time.”

His rosy views aren’t universally accepted, of course, but there’s no arguing that Americans will be consuming more wind energy in coming years. In the last quarter of 2013, taking advantage of federal production tax credits, wind developers began construction of nearly 11,000 megawatts of new capacity. Texas alone has some 7,000 MW of new wind capacity under construction—making it the fastest-growing source of new electric capacity in the state.

Here in California, you can see for yourself just how much wind energy contributes to the state’s power grid, courtesy of the California Independent System Operator. On a typical day, California wind farms produce far more energy than solar or geothermal, the runners-up of renewable sources. And, conveniently, wind tends to be a good complement to solar energy, rising in the evening hours when the sun has set. In 2012, the most recent year for which published data are available, wind accounted for 30 percent of PG&E’s renewable electricity sales, more than any other renewable source.

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