Extreme Winter Weather Puts Strain on Power Systems, Lets Wind Energy Shine

Snow The North American cold wave has wreaked havoc on energy systems this winter, plagued by natural gas shortages, rising peak power demand and power plants going offline due to extreme weather conditions. The displaced polar vortex, with its frigid temperatures and strong winds, has caused energy use to soar–creating supply shortages and rising energy costs. But wind power has performed well overall.

Natural Gas Shortages

Natural gas shortages are emerging across the country, brought on by unusually high natural gas use due to record cold temperatures, as many households use natural gas furnaces and boilers. The situation is compounded by freezing gas wells, slowed production and other infrastructure complications due to low temperatures and high winds. Natural gas inventories fell by 262 billion cubic feet two weeks ago, causing prices to rise. Stocks of natural gas are low, and winter is only half over.

“We’re seeing very high prices because of freeze-offs and storage concerns. Utilities are concerned because it’s been so cold that they are buying spot gas to make sure they have enough in storage to get through the withdrawal season,” said Aaron Calder, market analyst with Gelber & Associates.

Peak Power Demand

Shortages are causing natural gas prices to rise, reaching a four-year high earlier this month but coming down slightly since. Electricity generators are asking customers to conserve power, which would require fewer natural gas power plants to come online. To compound the situation, California has been depending more on natural gas to generate electricity since the decommissioning of San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. Unfortunately, cold temperatures this winter have also caused electricity use to climb due to high heating demand.

Some utilities have set records for peak winter power demand. Such high winter demand is relatively rare, with summer demand spikes being far more common. Some utility companies, such as Nebraska Public Power District (NPPD), are choosing not to use gas-fired plants, because prices are 300 percent higher than power from other sources.

Extreme Winter Weather Causes Equipment Failure

Dozens of power plants have failed during cold snaps this year, caused by a variety of weather-induced complications. “We lost about 3,700 megawatts of generation,” said Dan Woodfin, director of system operations for the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. “About half of that was weather-related and the remainder were due to non-weather-related issues.” Monitoring equipment failed at two power plants, requiring them to shut down, according to Woodfin.

Wind Power Eases Woes

“NPPD was able to meet this highest level of demand, in part, due to our steady and stable supply of power generated by our nuclear and coal-fired facilities,” said Pat Pope, president and CEO of NPPD. “But the wind also worked in our favor yesterday, contributing more than 216 megawatts for NPPD during the time of peak demand.”

Click to enlarge
Graph from Ontario IESO – Click to enlarge

Wind power is often criticized for producing far more energy in the winter, when energy demand is more moderate and tapering off when demand spikes in the mid-summer. Renewable energy advocates often point out that solar energy output increases in the summertime, allowing the two sources to work well in tandem.

Wind energy, however, is uniquely capable of handling high winter energy demand, which has been particularly important this year. The cold weather has allowed wind energy to fill supply gaps in regions with large wind energy capacity, as the cold temperatures have been accompanied by high wind speeds.

During times of peak demand in late January, wind energy was saving $1.5 to $2 million per hour as it supplied 3,500 MW of electricity to PJM (the power grid agency for 13 Mid-Atlantic and Midwestern states), according to the American Wind Energy Association. This strong supply of electricity during peak demand also helps ease power costs overall, resulting in greater cost savings to consumers.

The same phenomenon has been true this winter in Ireland, where wind power has been reducing reliance on natural gas. “The substantial contribution of wind energy helped reduce the monthly average wholesale electricity price by 5 percent,” says John Heffernan, gas and power trader of Bord Gais Energy, a leading energy provider in Ireland.

As wind technology advances, wind turbines will perform even better in harsh weather conditions. Icing can be an issue on wind turbines in the winter, reducing energy output and even requiring machines to be shut down. Deicing technology is advancing, helping to make winter wind energy production more reliable.

The extreme weather this winter demonstrates that all types of power generation can fail, or in the case of natural gas, become far more expensive. Ultimately, a diverse energy mix boosts resiliency, especially as climate change causes severe weather. Higher energy costs also make the renewable energy systems installed by corporations such as Google and SC Johnson more appealing to mitigate the effects of fluctuating energy costs.

Image credit: Flickr/niXerKG

Chart courtesy of Ontario IESO

Sarah Lozanova is a regular contributor to environmental and energy publications and websites, including Mother Earth Living, Energy International Quarterly, Triple Pundit, Urban Farm, and Solar Today. Her experience includes work with small-scale solar energy installations and utility-scale wind farms. She earned an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School and she resides in Belfast Cohousing & Ecovillage in Midcoast Maine with her husband and two children.

Sarah Lozanova is a green copywriter and communications professional specializing in renewable energy and clean technology. She is a consultant for Sustainable Solutions Group and a regular contributor to environmental and energy publications and websites, including Mother Earth Living, Home Power, Earth911, and Green Builder. Her experience includes work with small-scale solar energy installations and utility-scale wind farms. She earned an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School and she resides in Belfast Cohousing & Ecovillage in Midcoast Maine.

25 responses

  1. When I first read the title of this article, I thought to myself, “This must be written by someone who makes money in the wind industry.” After reading only the first paragraph I had to scroll to the bottom to read the bio of the author and confirm my suspicions. Sure enough, I was right. The only people in the world who would make such an outrageous claim about inefficient, unreliable and useless wind turbines, would be someone who is sucking from the subsidy trough.

    I live near a huge wind farm. In the winter time, you hardly ever see these things moving. For one thing, if the wind is blowing above a certain speed, they have to shut the turbines down. They also have to shut them down to prevent ice throw. It’s a well-known fact that wintertime is one of the poorest performing times of the year for IWT’s. Yet here is another spin doctor trying to convince the general public that these useless machines actually do any good. Just follow the money.

    1. Care to provide any data to back up your opinion, or anything at all to dispute the data in this article?

      Insinuating the author of an article backed by factual and cited information is biased without providing any data or sources of your own or even any rational analysis of the data already provided in the article is one of the lamest and most deceitful debate tactics.

      It’s easy to dismiss an argument when you ignore all the info and spit worthless ignorant drivel aimed at discrediting the author, rather than attempt to engage in an actual conversation of the topic.

    2. Valewood you should click on the authors links in the story and you will see that this is not jargon. Wind turbines “useless?” It seems that the utility in Nebraska benefits from wind energy!!

  2. A little surprised to see my graph- but I’m glad it’s in the article linked to the source article.

    Thank you.
    Wind output is not “uniquely capable of handling high winter energy demand.” Wind is more productive on average during colder periods, but it still has little capacity value (at least in Ontario – which is the source of the graphed data). In 2014, for instance, Ontario’s 5 highest demand hours have seen it’s 2100+ MW of wind capacity producing 1863, 266,418,152 and 236 MW – it’s hardly indicative of capacity anybody would stake their life on being productive at any one time.

    Ontario’s Society of Professional Engineers refered to wind as a “displacement” source last year and I think that’s the right way to think of it. If you are burning coal or gas, you’ll burn less of it when it’s windy.

    In Texas ERCOT called for conservation from late afternoon on the Feb. 6th to noon on the 7th noting, noting, as this article does “some generation capacity has become unavailable due to limitations to natural gas supplies.” That’s usually true of something – but the conservation call matched a depressed period of wind output too.

    The implication that wind is more reliable than natural gas or coal generaion in winter is irresponsible and dangerous.

  3. “Ontario’s Society of Professional Engineers referred to wind as a “displacement” source last year and I think that’s the right way to think of it. If you are burning coal or gas, you’ll burn less of it when it’s windy.”

    Laymen , those not in the power industry, should read the above statement. Wind and solar do not replace other forms of generation because they are not reliable, i.e. available on demand. They merely displace some amount of fuel burned by other reliable generators.

  4. Unbelieveably inaccurate article. For example, the author says that natural gas prices are 300 percent higher than “power from other sources”. Now click on “300 percent higher” and read the reference for this “fact” provided by the author. The source does say that natural gas prices are 300 percent higher than natural gas prices have been in the past. But it does not say and it is not the case that gas-fired power is 300 percent more costly than power from other sources. In passing, note that the referenced source makes it clear that the utility largely relied on nuclear and coal-fired plants to manage the power demand peak.

    And on gas prices, the reality is that “300 percent higher” price applies only to spot market prices. Because utilities typically secure at least some of their base load fuel supply under long-term purchase agreements, while the spot price is the marginal price they pay for coal and gas, it is currently higher than the average price they pay for gas. My guess is that gas did not play as large a roll in meeting peak demand as it might have because supply was short, not because price was too high.

  5. For those wind generators in the footprint of a competitive market such as NPPD in MISO, ERCOT, or PJM ( and I think IESO), the real test is how they performed while the price for their energy is very high. The “polar vortex” sent prices soaring in PJM, about $2,000/MWH versus the usual $50/MWH. Those generators that were on line during
    those high priced hours should have become very rich. How did wind generators do?

    1. Can’t speak to all of these markets, but …
      Long answer; certainly in Ontario almost all generation has some agreement for compensation either separate from, or in addition to, the market pricing – most wind is guaranteed a fixed rate on a “must take” basis for all generation. I think the same is true for almost all wind generators most places: they may operate in regions with competitive markets, but to finance the build they usually acquire power purchase agreements (most efficiently in the US due to renewable portfolio/energy standards requiring a percentage of supply to come from renewables).
      Some exceptions may well exist in the wind highway/corridor in the central U.S. – Stacia’s point above isn’t wrong. Particularly with the federal Prodution tax credit benefitting them, wind generators in great locations may be competitive with the fuel component cost of gas generatiion if gas rises to rates it’s almost sure to.
      Short answer: I have calculated the average market value (production at hourly market rate), and in Ontario wind is the least valuable – and as capacity grows the average value decreases.

      1. Thanks for the data and underlying analysis. The figure addresses the value of wind much better than the various discussions about availability by time of year or time of day. Wind shows itself to be about 11% less valuable during January 2014, including the deep freeze.

        Can you provide me a link to the data sources? I am looking at PJM data now.

        1. Like all data, there’s a short story and a long one.

          The short one is the monthly average price, and the monthly average value of wind.

          The data files are from the ieso, and they’ve just changed their website. I think I’ve found the new file locations at:

          Hourly Ontario and Market Demands, year-to-date (you’ll just care about “Ontario Demand”)

          HOEP, 2002-Present (weighted avg will be sum([ontario demand]*[HOEP])/sum([ontario demand])

          Hourly Wind Generator Output, 2006-present (use same approach for weighting by month).

          If you want to look over time there’s a separate file for demand from 2002-2013 – there’s also a file with the monthly average HOEP (market rate) already calculated.

          If you’re interested in the other generation calcs, that’s more difficult to explain (the long story is that I built that table from another, far less compact, data set for hourly generation ).

          Best paper I’ve seen on this is The Market Value of Variable Renewables, by Lion Hirth – which inspired my to run numbers for Ontario (noted in The diminishing value, and ….)

        2. Stacia, I would prefer to put dollar signs on numbers, to quantify their value. To some extent, it would be the opposite of costly, which would have a dollar sign. It would also be useful, in that providing value to the purchaser of the power.

  6. Other responses have already destroyed the thesis of this article, but why not pile on? The most elementary curiosity-based understanding of meteorology would lead one to the knowledge that high pressure systems in northern hemisphere winters “settle in” to bring the coldest temperatures with the least wind. The ERCOT chart cited in one response demonstrates that unambiguously. (I live in Texas, and follow ERCOT’s wind statistics regularly. And, by the way, in the hot Texas summers, wind generation consistently drops to its lowest point (often near zero) in the afternoon when most needed.)

    1. Thanks for all the intelligent responses to the article. Paul, I agree about summer wind energy output, which makes output quite disappointing when it is needed most. That is generally when solar energy is performing well.

      As for winter output during times of high demand, it’s varied. Looking at the January ERCOT data, there are some days when wind output was strong during times of peak demand, like January 7th and 8th, where the peak loads were 57,265 MW and 45,269 MW and wind over peak at 5,543 MW and 6,634 MW.

      If that prevented natural gas power plants from firing up with gas from the spot market, that would result in some huge cost savings.

      1. So, we need to build solar capacity equal to the entire demand of the grid, and wind capacity equal to the entire demand of the grid to be able to not run fossil fuel plants during the middle of the day during a hot Texas summer. This would at the very least take a $144 billion dollar investment in solar cells, assuming the cheapest installation cost, rock bottom solar cell prices, and no grid connection cost and no maintenance.

        BUT WAIT, what about a hot Texas afternoon or early evening? Solar production will only be a fraction of the nameplate capacity yet wind can still remain near zero production on such days. So we actually need to build out solar capacity equal to something like 300-400% of possible demand. Now we are talking about investing $504 billion in solar panel investment. Now we have enough power for the grid at 5pm on a hot texas day, and it’s 100% renewable. Awesome!

        OH WAIT, now it is 7pm and solar production has dropped to almost nothing, the trickle of power isn’t even running their inverter anymore. Wind has only picked up to 20% of nameplate capacity. Looks like we need to actually build out wind’s nameplate capacity to 5x the peak grid demand. Ok, that will only cost a cool $400 billion dollars (360,000 megawatts). So for about a trillion dollars, just ONE YEAR of texas’s GDP, the state could go 100% renewable.

        Let’s just hope there are not any windless nights, as during the red sox vs Rangers game of 06…

        1. Or, for that same investment, Texas could begin a serial run of AP1000 reactors, and even if they cost 3x as much as the most recent one in China did Texas would still get 115 megawatts no matter the weather for at least the next sixty years. That would be enough to supply Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Arkansas, New Mexico and Colorado.

          If they got construction costs to within 30% of that of China, then that same investment would make US electricity production CO2 free for the next sixty years. Even better, we’d could use that same power to mine and refine Uranium, making the entire life cycle CO2 free.

  7. Cape Wind Nantucket. This is the will be the first offshore wind turbine installation in the United States.

    A combined cycle natural gas turbine plant studied by the DOE completed in 2010 is rated at 570 mw and produces 470 mw, capacity factor 85%. cost $311 MILLION. life cycle 35 years therefore this plant will produce 133 Terawatts life cycle.

    Cape Wind project in Nantucket sound has been approved. The project will cost $2.6 BILLON, and it has secured funding for $2 billon of that from a Japanese bank but this is believed to be subject to the project gaining a loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Energy. The contracted cost of the wind farm’s energy will be 23 cents a kilowatt hour (excluding tax credits, which are unlikely to last the length of the project), which is more than 50% higher than current average electricity prices in Massachusetts. the bay state is already the 4th most expensive state for electricity in the nation. Even if the tax credits are preserved, $940 million of the $1.6 billion contract represents costs above projections for the likely market price of conventional power. moreover, these costs are just the initial costs they are scheduled to rise by 3.5 percent annually for 15 years. by year 15 the rate will be $.38 per Kilowatt.

    This project is rated at 468 mw and will produce 143 mw after applying a capacity factor of 30.4 % (as computed the the University of Delaware) the time the wind actually blows, life cycle is 20 years therefore this project will produce 24.6 Terawatts life cycle. Insofar as this project located in an area which is enshrouded in fog 200, on average, days of the year a low wind velocity environment, a more realistic life cycle output would be 15 Terawatts.

  8. Thanks for the article, Wind energy production does pick in the winter and often during the pick demand hours. US does not have much wind energy capacity, but it is enough to make a difference.
    I know that many people dislike wind turbines and I guess it depends what you compare them to. I Compare them to coal power plants and nuclear plants and I makes me like wind turbines.
    Regarding produced electricity cost and efficiency I must provide some info here.
    While all wind farms have different Net Capacity Factor (NCF) most of the wind farms built in the past 2 years and under construction now are in the range of 40% to 50% and more. This does not mean that the turbines are off for half of the time, but that in certain percentage of the time they generate less energy than the name-tag on the generator shows as maximum. This is the way a wind turbine is designed to operate and it is the normal power production process.

    Regarding price in the resent years wind turbines have been producing electricity at prices as low as $0.024/kWh (averaging at about $0.032). Can any other power generation build a facility and start producing power at this cost with less than 30% subsidies and less environmental impact than the wind energy? I am not aware of such power generation technology.

  9. An intelligent article putting the emphasis on a diverse energy mix. Some respondents seem shocked to discover that wind turbines don’t generate any energy when there’s no wind. What happens to coal-fired power stations when there’s no coal?

  10. Well over in Ireland in Dec 14 nearly 25% of the nations power came from wind and this seriously dampened the wholesale price of electricity. We estimate than in 2013 there were savings of well over €100 million because of wind and thats after accounting for subsidies etc. ((an estimate of the wholesale price modelled without wind – the actual wholesale price) * vol of electricity produced). Of course, the wholesale price is still determined by the cost of gas and coal so if these are rising, then consumer bill will be impacted, however the forecast view of ‘spark’ will benefit from wind as there is a reduced need for thermal plant. However, ye guys over in the US are forcing us Europeans to take a second look at our love affair with renewables and the drive to de-carbonise our economies. In January, one of the biggest themes at the World Economic forum at Davos was competiveness arising from access to low cost energy. Given the ongoing shale gas revolution in the US, the US has been judged the clear winner with its abundance of low-cost natural gas and cheap industrial electricity prices. Coinciding with the first day of Davos, the European Commission released a new policy paper on energy and climate seeking a binding target to reduce carbon emissions by 40% from 1990 levels by 2030 and targeting renewables to provide 27% of EU energy by 2030. Of note however was the heavy emphasis on the price of such policies and the Commission has called for a more cost-efficient approach to renewables. In the Commission’s new policy statement it observed that the availability of shale gas in the USA has substantially lowered natural gas prices there as well as electricity generated from natural gas. So going forward only economical renewables will be getting our love so as to protect industry and jobs.

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