While the record cold across much of the U.S. in January and February was a top news story, what received less coverage was the role wind energy played in protecting consumers from price increases and reliability problems affecting other energy sources. Electricity supplies across the Eastern U.S. were tight as electricity demand skyrocketed at the same time many conventional power plants stopped producing due to mechanical failures from the cold and natural gas shortages.
Fortunately, wind energy provided large amounts of extremely valuable electricity as the cold successively challenged each grid operator:
• As the cold and high winds first rolled into U.S. on January 6, the Midwest grid operator saw very high wind energy output of around 8,000 MW, enough to supply 6 million average homes under typical conditions.
• Later that morning, the Nebraska Public Power District was able to meet record winter electricity demand with more than 300 MW of wind output, which provided about 13 percent of its total electricity demand. In a press release touting wind energy contribution, the utility explained that “Nebraskans benefit from NPPD’s diverse portfolio of generating resources. Using a combination of fuels means we deliver electricity using the lowest cost resources while maintaining high reliability for our customers.” The utility also noted that “NPPD did not operate its natural gas generation because the fuel costs were up more than 300 percent over typical prices.”
• In Texas, the more than 2,000 MW of wind output that morning was the critical difference keeping heaters running as the grid operator struggled with numerous outages at conventional power plants. More than 13,000 MW of conventional power plants were down for maintenance, while another 2,000 MW of conventional power plants experienced unplanned outages, forcing the grid operator to resort to emergency procedures. In a similar incident two years ago, wind energy earned accolades from the grid operator for helping to keep the lights on as dozens of conventional power plants failed in another cold snap.
• By that evening, the cold air had reached the East Coast. The grid operator for the Mid-Atlantic and Great Lakes states, PJM, saw very high wind energy output when it needed it most. Wind output was above 3,000 MW when the grid operator faced extreme challenges due to the unexpected failure of numerous conventional power plants.
• The New York grid operator issued a press release highlighting the major contributions it received from wind energy and the difficulties it encountered due to failures of other energy sources that evening.
• New England consumers also saw major savings as the region’s wind plants ran at nearly full output, helping to mitigate the impact of extremely high electricity and natural gas prices.
Two weeks later, wind energy again provided large amounts of extremely valuable energy as another cold snap roiled the Eastern U.S. During the periods of peak demand on January 22-23, the PJM grid operator received between 3,000-4,000 MW of wind energy output. Wind played a critical role in diversifying the energy mix, protecting consumers from electricity and natural gas prices that skyrocketed to 10-50 times normal levels.
Finally, in early February, wind energy once again demonstrated its value, this time in California. Specifically, wind energy provided the California grid operator with around 2,000 MW of output at the time of peak demand on the evening of February 6, and wind energy output remained high at around 2,500 MW for most of the rest of that evening. This came at a critical time for the operator, which issued a statewide “Flex Alert” because “A shortage of natural gas triggered by extreme cold weather in much of the United States and Canada is impacting fuel supplies to Southern CA power plants and reducing electricity generation.”
Because it has no fuel cost, wind energy plays a critical role in protecting consumers from fuel price volatility. Through four separate mechanisms, wind energy keeps electricity and natural gas prices in check by:
• Directly offsetting the use of expensive energy
• Driving prices down for all consumers in the electricity market
• Driving natural gas prices down for all consumers in the gas market
• Hedging against energy price volatility
While wind energy provides these benefits during everyday grid operations, they are more pronounced during shortages like the extreme cold events seen in January and February.