Strong national security and a healthy economy share a basic component: access to reliable, affordable energy.
Wind power delivers this by making the grid and America’s electricity mix more diverse, secure, and — now that turbines have scaled up across 41 states — more reliable too.
The people who keep the country’s lights on know this firsthand. Xcel Energy’s Colorado Balancing Authority already runs on 20 percent renewable energy. ERCOT in Texas last year got 15 percent of its electricity from wind. The Southwest Power Pool (SPP), grid manager across 14 states, is approaching 20 percent year-round — and just peaked at 52 percent wind energy on Feb. 12.
All these systems already operate reliably with much higher levels of wind energy than we have so far nationwide, and they’re saving fuel for when they need it.
“Ten years ago we thought hitting even a 25 percent wind-penetration level would be extremely challenging, and any more than that would pose serious threats to reliability,” said Bruce Rew, SPP’s vice president of operations. “Now we have the ability to reliably manage greater than 50 percent. It’s not even our ceiling.”
SPP’s experience is not unique. Other grid operators and Department of Energy researchers have studied scenarios where renewables provide 25 percent to 50 percent of electricity and found no concerns on any measure of reliability.
PJM, America’s largest grid operator, recently found how wind complements gas to provide resilience during the Polar Vortex weather event. PJM also found it could handle even 75 percent wind power reliably.
So it’s clear the country can use more wind power without issue. Even better, adding another generation source makes the whole system more resilient because it’s more diverse.
How does that work?
Grid operators have always balanced fluctuating electricity demand — as appliances, air conditioners, and factories turn on and off, and conventional power plants break down unexpectedly.
Meanwhile, over large areas wind output stays constant, with changes slow, predictable, and mostly canceled out by larger variations in demand and other supply. Abrupt loss of a large conventional generator is more costly.
This was on display during 2014’s Polar Vortex. When extreme cold shut down several conventional power plants, with natural gas prices already elevated by sky-high home heating demand, wind turbines kept reliably turning. That saved Great Lakes and Mid-Atlantic families and businesses over $1 billion in two days.
It happened again a year later, when a New York nuclear plant went offline unexpectedly. During a similar previous outage, spot energy prices more than tripled. This time, however, the state’s wind farms picked up the slack, keeping money in consumers’ pockets.
Another way wind turbines make our electricity system more reliable: fast and accurate voltage and frequency control. Many blackouts, like one that hit Washington, D.C., in 2015, happen in part because conventional power plants went offline during voltage and frequency disturbances on the grid. Thanks to their advanced power electronics, wind and solar plants withstand such disturbances far better.
On top of all this, the wind industry is doing one of the hardest things in America: adding new factory jobs. Today, over 25,000 U.S. wind workers have jobs in more than 500 factories, and the industry will add another 8,000 factory jobs by the end of President Trump’s first term. Overall, 100,000 Americans have wind jobs, and wind-related employment is projected to reach nearly 150,000 by 2020.
A stronger, more reliable grid, and hundreds of thousands of U.S. jobs across all 50 states: That’s how wind works for America.
• Tom Kiernan is the CEO of the American Wind Energy Association. You can follow him on Twitter at @TomCKiernan.
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