Forget Intermittency: NREL Says Wind Energy Can Boost Grid Reliability

January 25, 2014 by  
Filed under Green Energy News

Clean Power
Wind farm in the snow (Netherlands).

Published on January 24th, 2014
by Silvio Marcacci

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We’ve all heard the warnings about how intermittent renewables could “crash” the grid if for instance all of a sudden the wind stops blowing and grid operators are left in the lurch for power when they need it. But what if wind turbines actually improve grid reliability?

May sound far-fetched to some people, but that’s exactly what the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) reports in the new study Active Power Controls from Wind Power: Bridging the Gaps. 

Previous studies have focused on wind energy forecasting as the key to balancing wind’s availability and the power grid’s demand, but this new hypothesis could vastly expand the relationship between wind turbines and the grid.

Wind farm in the snow (Netherlands).

Wind farm in the snow image via CleanTechnica

How Does Wind Perform With The Grid?

NREL undertook the study with the Electric Power Research Institute, an organization comprised of more than 1,000 members (most of whom are electric utilities) and the University of Colorado, so renewable energy naysayers will be hard pressed to dismiss this study as an environmentalist pipe dream.

Analysts studied multiple power system simulations, control simulations, and field tests at NREL’s National Wind Technology Center to determine how if wind could provide ancillary services in wholesale electricity markets, how wind farms affect system frequency in the Western U.S. grid system, and if using wind farms to actively provide power control to the grid affects turbine performance and structural integrity.

And the outcome of all these studies? Wind energy can not only support the grid by ramping power output up and down to enhance system reliability, but that using wind farms to provide active power control is economically beneficial, all with negligible damage to the turbines themselves.

Wind Energy, Making The Grid Stronger and Cheaper

These are potentially game-changing findings. “The study’s key takeaway is that wind energy can act in an equal or superior manner to conventional generation when providing active power control, supporting the system frequency response, and improving reliability,” said Erik Ela, NREL analyst.

Active power control helps grid operators balance system demand with generation at various times throughout the day, helping prevent power flow above or below the ideal grid frequency and involuntary load shedding – preventing both potential blackouts and turbine damage.

Making America’s grid more flexible and integrating renewables is an important imperative. Without long-overdue transmission system investments, grid operators are often forced to use high-cost (and typically fossil fuel) “peaker” power plants when demand surges or baseload power plants go offline.

Intermittency Mitigated By Recent Developments

The traditional issue facing wind energy in this context is that it can’t be “turned on” by grid operators whenever they need it. Unless the wind is blowing, turbines can’t generate electricity.

But wind has shown its chops in helping keep the lights on as extreme weather has hit the U.S. in recent memory – just consider the fact that wind energy was credited with preventing blackouts in Texas and parts of the Midwest when the polar vortex spiked power demand and forced some power plants offline.

NREL’s report also notes that almost all grid operators across the U.S., as well as many power systems outside the areas covered by regional grids, are using wind farms in dispatch procedures to manage transmission congestion at five-minute intervals – meaning it’s now a generation resource to be dispatched (for free) when needed.

“Utilities and independent system operators are all seeking strategies to better integrate wind and other variable generation into their electric systems,” said Ela. “Few have considered using wind power to support power system reliability.”

Wind energy has become one of the fastest-growing sources of electricity in America, and it’s a critical source of generation if we’re going to decarbonize our economy and slow climate change. With NREL’s report, perhaps grid operators will start to see wind energy as an energy system imperative, not just an environmental imperative.

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About the Author

Silvio is Principal at Marcacci Communications, a full-service clean energy and climate-focused public relations company based in Washington, D.C.


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  • Bob did you write this report? I know you been saying for years just over build the number of wind turbines. Another crack in the gas peaking plant story. Even without storage we can go almost no fossil fuel for electric.
    And for those not hearing the air waves in Ky, there is already a PAC trying to unseat the current “coal hating, liberal” senator. So even in coal/tobacco love Ky, big coal is shaking in it boots. What was interesting the whole thing was on how she didn’t love (stand up for) coal, only in the last line did they mention her not being on Ky side.

  • Many people confuse variability (which is true of wind) with unreliabilty and unpredictability (untrue ). Large fossil and nuclear plants are highly controllable but when they do have problems, these are unpredictable and, by the lumpy nature of the plants, large. Adding the speed of ramping up and down introduces yet another dimension on which wind scores well. However, it doesn’t remove the need for large despatchable reserve capacity to cope with the meteorological variability.

    • If I have 1000 1MW turbines and one stops I have to fill the 1MW gap. If I have a 500MW coal plant of 1GW nuclear plant and it stops it is a much bigger issue to deal with.
      I was in a 500MW coal plant once when it was hit by lighting and knocked of the grid, all hell broke loose for 30-40 mins while they tried to get back on line. More lights flashing and sirens than carter has pills.
      So the fact that the come in smaller incurments (1-4, ok hearing 7 for offshore) makes it easier to deal with. As for just do what we have done for the last 100 years with coal plants just more that you will even need to handle peak. And then spread them out over a large area.

  • With a reasonable balanced portfolio, wind provides a substantial “free fuel” contribution. Solar is another “free fuel” contributor especially during mid-day to afternoon peak hours. Then ofcource all of this get even better with storage.

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