Fact check: Bell missteps on utility integration of wind power
In a recent article on fossil fuels, Larry Bell, a columnist for Forbes.com, made several misstatements about wind power. The following response was posted as a comment.
Wind power is unlikely to provide a "big growth opportunity" for natural gas. When the wind is blowing, it displaces the most expensive (and typically most polluting) power plants on the utility system--often coal or older, less efficient gas plants. In 2008 (under the George W. Bush Administration), the U.S. Department of Energy looked at a scenario in which wind expanded to provide 20 percent of U.S. electricity by 2030. Under that scenario, the use of natural gas for electricity generation dropped by 50 percent (!) in the year 2030 relative to the baseline, no-new-wind case. Not exactly a growth opportunity.
Mr. Bell's comments on spinning reserve are also in error. Variable electric generation from wind farms can be integrated readily into utility systems with virtually zero increase in the need for fast-acting reserves. Utility system operators already deal regularly with massive swings in electricity demand and in the output of conventional generators. Also, the amount of electricity generated by wind farms changes slowly and predictably; failures at conventional (nuclear and fossil-fueled) power plants occur instantaneously without warning. The fast-acting reserves utility system operators must have on standby 24/7/365 for conventional outages typically cost dozens of times more than the slower-acting reserves needed for wind’s variability. It is more appropriate to talk about the need to back up large conventional power plants than about backing up wind power.
The American Wind Energy Association does indeed frequently talk about "powering the equivalent of 12 million homes," or other similarly phrased numbers, in order to convert wind generation from "thousands of megawatt-hours" into numbers people can more easily grasp. Those statements are always correctly based on actual or projected kilowatt-hours generated and average household electricity use, never based on theoretical maximum capacities as Mr. Bell claims. There is never confusion--inasmuch as AWEA is the primary reference source on which government officials, academia, and others depend for statistical information about the wind industry, accuracy is a primary goal.
No power plant runs 100% of the time. During two major utility supply emergencies in Texas last year (a February freeze and an August heat wave), the state's utility system was bedeviled by outages of conventional power plants due to extreme weather. According to an August 2 blog article by Elizabeth Souder of the Dallas Morning News, "The high temperatures also caused about 20 power plants to stop working, including at least one coal-fired plant and natural gas plants." In February, the state experienced rolling blackouts after almost 100 fossil-fired power plants broke down in the extreme cold, yet wind energy earned accolades from the CEO of the grid operator for helping to keep the lights on by continuing to produce as expected.
Geographic dispersal of wind farms makes their electricity production more dependable. This is something that seems intuitively obvious--the wind is usually blowing someplace--and has been predicted by a host of studies. While winds are often low in west Texas, where most of the state's wind farms are located, on very hot days, ocean breezes blow more strongly. This means that generation from offshore and coastal land-based wind matches up well with summer demand peaks. The Texas experience bears that out, with the CEO of the utility system telling the Austin American-Statesman, "We'd love to have more development of coastal wind. And we're hoping their ability to generate during the peak hours may encourage more development in that area."
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