What Happens When the Wind Stops Blowing?

At 6:41 PM, Feburary 26th, 2008, The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) activated a Stage Two emergency response to keep the power grid that supplies most of Texas from failing and triggering rolling blackouts. 

The operators balanced the grid by cutting off power to “interruptible” customers. These are customers such as industrial sites that have their own power generators and that pay lower rates in return for being kicked off the grid during emergencies. 

Several factors contributed to the emergency. Unusually warm weather caused increased consumption. Two coal plants were offline for scheduled maintenance. The major trigger, however, was an easily foreseeable problem:

Preliminary reports indicate the frequency decline was caused by a combination of events, including a drop in wind-energy production at the same time the evening electricity load was increasing, accompanied by multiple power providers falling below their scheduled energy production. In addition, the drop in wind energy led to some system constraints in moving power from the generation in the north zone to load in the west zone, resulting in limitations of balancing energy availability. The wind production dropped from more than 1700 MW three hours before the event down to 300 MW at the point the emergency procedures were activated. 

[More details here.]

Let me translate that for you: The wind suddenly stopped blowing. It does that sometimes. The grid couldn’t adapt to the sudden loss of wind-generated electricity and they had to kick people off the grid. 

Currently, Texas receives 3% of its electricity from wind, the highest percentage in the nation. A lot of people seriously talk of requiring as a matter of law that we generate up to 30% of our electricity from windpower. If a sudden drop in windpower can destabilize the grid when windpower contributes only 3% of total power, what will our reliability look like when unreliable windpower contributes 10%, 20% or more? 

Most people didn’t notice this incident because large numbers of diesel powered backup generators across the state kicked in to take up the slack. In the future, are all electricity consumers down to the individual small businesses and households going to have to buy fossil-fuel backup generators to handle routine outages of power? Even if they do, is it even possible for backup generators to compensate for the loss of 10% or more of the grid’s power?  

Electricity is not a luxury. It’s a necessity. It has to be available on demand, when and where it is needed. Weather dependent power sources cannot provide that level of reliability. The idea that we can get a significant percentage of our future electricity needs from windpower is a dangerous delusion.

[Update: FuturePundit, h/t Instapundit, wonders if manufacturers will gravitate to regions like West Texas that have abundant windpower, because windpower will reduce wholesale electricity prices. Given that this incident caused a spike in wholesale prices and led to the cutting off of the kind of customers who pay attention to wholesale electricity prices, I’m going to say windpower will be more likely to drive manufacturers away than to attract them. The cost of lost production or the cost of maintaining backup power supplies will easily wipe out any price advantages that windpower might intermittently provide.]

12 thoughts on “What Happens When the Wind Stops Blowing?”

  1. It’s great stuff, though, if you’re in the business of selling generation equipment..

    –you get to sell the wind turbines
    –AND you get to sell the peaking turbines that you’ll need when the wind quits blowing (not for all the installed wind capacity, but for some significant chunk of it)

    Reminds me of the real estate agent in the Ozarks, where the land was so steep that he sold both sides of the same acre…

  2. “Why wind power works for Denmark” by Hugh Sharman BSc, ACGI, in Proceedings of ICE Paper 13663, Civil Engineering 158 for May 2005 Pages 66–72.

    Denmark generates more wind power per head of population than any other country in the world. Its 5500 wind turbines, including the world’s two largest offshore wind farms, generate 16% of national demand. With increasing concerns over fossil fuels, the country is now being closely monitored by energy planners and funders worldwide. However, as this paper reveals, Denmark is exporting most of its wildly fluctuating wind power to larger neighbours while finding other solutions for supply and demand at home. As an ‘island’ grid based on slow-reacting thermal power stations, Britain may find its comparable wind-power aspirations more difficult to achieve.

    Sometimes the Danish wind carpet produces maximum output when there is little demand. On other occasions it delivers no energy when demand is high. There were 54 days in 2002, for example, when wind supplied less than 1% of demand … On one of those days (16 August 2002) the wind power system steering requirements exceeded wind output and the wind carpet consumed more power than it could produce. … There was also a whole week in February 2003 when virtually no wind power was generated in west Denmark.

    Longer Version

  3. The real issue is that our energy “strategy” is simply to provide a lower quality service. The quality of power, in terms of voltage as well as its reliability, has been falling to the point that serious businesses keep substantial generation capacity onsite. Not only that, but when there IS an outage, the local utility hurries and hooks up the residential customers (who make political noise) and then take longer to hook up the business customers (who probably have back up power, anyways).

    A lot of this is anecdotal but I have some personal evidence of this occurring and I know that many, many businesses are investing a lot in backup power.

    Pretty soon electricity will be an unreliable service and businesses will just take a big hit economically because it is more cost effective to build big base load plants than to scatter small units across the grid. But since the utilities frankly don’t care much about the quality of service (except for residential customers, who make up only a fraction of load) and certainly aren’t going to be building any base load units anytime soon, we will just see a deterioration of our capacity over time.

    Perhaps some jurisdictions will invest in power (I can see the advertising now – we have cheap, reliable power) in order to try to attract industry.

    But generally the whole industry is just going to go into a slow collapse in terms of reliability and businesses will ultimately be on their own if they want reliable power.

  4. Sometimes the wind doesn’t blow, but as far as I know, the tides never stop coming in or out. Why don’t we use them for renewable energy instead of flaky sources like wind or solar?

  5. YogSothoth,

    Sometimes the wind doesn’t blow, but as far as I know, the tides never stop coming in or out. Why don’t we use them for renewable energy instead of flaky sources like wind or solar?

    (1) Because Cthullu wouldn’t like it.

    (2) Only a few areas in the world produce tides high enough to produce significant amounts of energy.

    (3) Wave source energy are vulnerable to storms and tsunami.

    (4) The tide isn’t of a consistent height from hour-to-hour or even day-to-day. Just like all weather-dependent power, wave power will fluctuate and go offline unpredictably.

  6. I have worked at many large company’s over the years, all had their own back up generators … ( work in financial field… you have to to it due to the datacenters ). Its great for us, we where going to have to have generators anyway, now we pay less and we get things tested out regularly.

    System worked just great… Only folks that got knocked out where those that could deal with it. Lousy example of the point your trying to prove.

  7. btw, thats this is also the first site thats said that china has reliable energy… you need to look a bit closer at the facts

  8. Anonymous,

    System worked just great… Only folks that got knocked out where those that could deal with it. Lousy example of the point your trying to prove.

    So, when wind power provides 30% of our power, will all the people knocked offline be able to deal with it? Your basically saying that since we can deal with a 2ft flood now that we can just as easily deal with a 20ft flood just as easily.

    What is it with people like you and the inability to grasp the concept of the effects of scale?

    …thats this is also the first site thats said that china has reliable energy

    Actually, I have said that China WILL have reliable energy compared to us. 15 to 20 years down the road we will have cripple ourselves and China will have a pronounced technological advantage. Of course, we might get lucky and they will fall apart. Hundreds of millions of Chinese will be mired in poverty but that’s a small price to pay so that we can act morally superior without trashing our economic competitiveness.

    We are using the political system to create a sweeping energy plan that will force the use of politically correct technology. The Chinese are simply grabbing onto to whatever will work and work well. California has already crippled its power production and driven most of its manufacturing out of the state. The left wants to extend that “success” to the rest of the country.

  9. As to tidal power, it can be available on a predictable schedule. However, that could be maybe 4 hours every day. That’s seldom worth the investment.

    There was a proposal to build underwater generators under the Golden gate Bridge. That is a very good resource but the resultant power would cost over $2.00 a kW/hr compared to 5 to 10 cents for nuclear.

Comments are closed.