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Sarah Lozanova headshot

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


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.”

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 headshotSarah Lozanova

Sarah Lozanova is an environmental journalist and copywriter and has worked as a consultant to help large corporations become more sustainable. She is the author of Humane Home: Easy Steps for Sustainable & Green Living, and her renewable energy experience includes residential and commercial solar energy installations. She teaches green business classes to graduate students at Unity College and holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School.

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