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.
"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.
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.
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 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.