Recent commentary in the MIT Technology Review shares several captivating stories about the ways wind power benefits communities across Texas. Wind supports well-paying jobs and stable income for farmers and ranchers, provides a drought-proof cash crop they can rely on when the rains don’t fall or the fields don’t produce.
However, Martin’s final written product also gets some things wrong about wind power’s technology. This fact check clears up those misunderstandings.
An electricity mix diversified with wind power improves reliability
The strongest electricity system is one that uses a diversity of generating sources. That way, if one source fails another one remains online to help pick up the slack. That keeps both the lights on for consumers and protects their wallets against price spikes from declines in energy supply.
That’s exactly what happened during 2014’s Polar Vortex weather event, when the extreme cold knocked several conventional plants offline. Because wind energy kept reliably generating electricity during the frigid cold spell, it helped save consumers across the Great Lakes and Mid-Atlantic regions over $1 billion in just two days.
Likewise, this Bloomberg article reports when New York’s Indian Point nuclear plant suddenly went offline this past December, “Wind turbines in the state came to the rescue, running close to capacity and compensating for the loss of the reactor.”
We’ve also seen the benefits of a diversified electricity mix in Texas. ERCOT (grid operator for most of the state) data show the cost of wind’s variability is lower, in both total and dollar/megawatt hour (MWh) terms, than the cost of accommodating conventional power plant failures. That’s because wind plant output changes gradually and predictably, so the changes can often be accommodated using inexpensive offline power plants (non-spinning reserves) that can start up over 10-30 minutes. In contrast, conventional power plants fail abruptly, requiring the use of expensive, fast-acting reserves.
Nor is there a difference in the quality of the electricity wind farms produce; wind plants exceed the ability of conventional power plants to regulate voltage and frequency. ERCOT regularly uses wind plants’ fast and accurate frequency response control as the primary tool for keeping system frequency stable as electricity demand and supply fluctuate.
Wind plants meet far more stringent standards for riding through voltage and frequency disturbances, standards that cannot be met by conventional power plants. Using their sophisticated power electronics, wind plants quickly and accurately regulate voltage, in many cases even when the turbines are not producing power.
Wind power is one of the biggest, fastest, cheapest ways to cut carbon pollution
As the nation’s largest energy user, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Texas would have high carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. And that’s been exactly the case.
By a large margin, Texas’s carbon emissions have been the country’s highest for decades. The more relevant factor is that those emissions are trending downward, as the state moves to wind generation and other low-carbon forms of energy.
This downward trend has continued despite a large increase in overall electricity consumption in Texas (driven by population growth, increased electricity demand for oil and gas production, etc). The emissions intensity (CO2/megawatt hour (MWh)) of Texas electricity has been declining even more dramatically, as shown by this data from the Energy Information Administration.
Because wind is one of the biggest, fastest, cheapest ways to cut carbon pollution, it makes sense that Texas’s carbon emission intensity would decrease as more wind power comes online in the state. Indeed, wind energy in the Lone Star State cuts nearly 5.5 million cars’ worth of CO2 pollution every year.
Updating transmission pays for itself and saves consumers money
Modernizing America’s electricity grid to meet 21st century needs benefits all sources of electricity generation, and doing so often creates significant consumer savings.
For example, Americans could save up to $47 billion on the electricity bills every year from better transmission planning, according to analysis from the Brattle Group. Likewise, the Southwest Power Pool, a grid manager in 14 states, reports that transmission upgrades would save $800 for each of its customers over the next four decades. Similarly, the Midcontinent Independent Systems Operator, which manages the grid in another 15 states, found improvements could save each person it serves $1,000 in the coming years.
That’s why other parts of the country are following Texas’s lead, including much of the Midwest, from Oklahoma west to Colorado and Wyoming, north to the Dakotas, and east to Illinois and Indiana, all areas all with very good wind resources.
Texas has recognized that transmission pays for itself, and has always spread the cost of transmission for all energy sources across all users of the power system. A strong transmission system is essential for a free electricity market, as a congested power system hinders competition.
All energy sources receive government incentives
The reality is all U.S. energy sources receive government incentives, and wind has received a small portion of the overall amount. Since 1950, wind has accounted for less than 3 percent of all federal dollars spent on energy incentives, while fossil fuels and nuclear have led the way at 65 percent and 21 percent, respectively.
The reality is the more wind power has grown, the more Americans like it.
Today, wind energy is widely deployed in 40 states, and places like Iowa, Kansas and South Dakota use wind to generate at least 20 percent of their electricity. Overall, a dozen states use to wind to generate at least 10 percent. Voters in these states realize wind brings economic development, well-paying jobs and new revenue streams to their communities. That’s why a recent poll found 91 percent of likely voters favor expanding wind power.
While some may persist in spreading outdated or misleading information, the truth is wind a clean, reliable affordable solution for millions of American families and businesses.