Utility Experience Blows Away Concerns About Wind Power

The Southwest Power Pool said last week that it met 52.1 percent of the electricity demand in the sprawling transmission organization’s service territory with windpower during a portion of the overnight period on Feb. 13, marking the first time SPP had topped the 50 percent mark. What’s even bigger news is that hardly anyone noticed—these records have been falling consistently for the past several years with the steady increase in wind farm construction across the Midwest; SPP set its prior record of 49.2 percent just last year.

The real news, however, wasn’t the percentage itself, but what Bruce Rew, SPP’s vice president of operations, said later in the same press release concerning the changes that have occurred in the past 10 years. Then, the SPP release noted, a goal of 25 percent would have been deemed unrealistic.

Clearly, not anymore.

“Since then,” Rew said, “we’ve gained experience and implemented new policies and procedures. Now we have the ability to reliably manage greater than 50 percent wind penetration. It’s not even our ceiling. We continue to study even higher levels of renewable, variable generation as part of our plans to maintain a reliable and economic grid of the future.”

In journalism, that’s called burying the lede, but it is indicative of the changes that have swept across the utility industry in the past decade. As I noted in a January post (which you can read here), the concerns in the utility industry about windpower’s impact on the grid’s reliability were palpable. From the outside, the degree of unease often seemed over the top, but for those charged with operating the system, the concerns were indeed real.

Experience has changed those attitudes. SPP’s latest wind integration analysis, completed in 2015 and released early last year (you can find it here) looks at what system changes or hardware additions would be required to run the system reliably at wind penetration levels of 30 percent, 45 percent and 60 percent. (As of year-end 2016 there was slightly more than 16,000 megawatts of installed wind generating capacity in SPP’s territory; in 2015, the latest full year of data, wind accounted for just under 14 percent of the system’s electric output.) The report’s findings are technical in nature and cover a range of needed upgrades and operational changes, but the upshot is straightforward: If the changes are made, they “would enable the SPP transmission system to reliably handle up to the 60 percent wind penetration levels studied.”

That type of matter-of-fact finding 10 years ago would have been almost unthinkable, but today it is common across the utility industry.

In Texas, the transmission system operators at ERCOT have successfully integrated a surge of new windpower capacity in the last five years: Wind accounted for 15.1 percent of the state’s generation in 2016, up from 8.5 percent in 2011. And the growth is slated to continue. According to data from the American Wind Energy Association (which can be found here), there is an additional 5,401 MW of windpower capacity under construction in the state, which is already far and away the largest wind generator in the U.S., with 20,321 MW of installed capacity.

As with the SPP approach, what’s important to note is the matter-of-fact way this capacity is being integrated. In its 2016 annual report (which is available here), ERCOT notes: “In 2016, wind and solar projects accounted for the majority of new generation built in the ERCOT region. As renewable energy and other new technologies continue to grow in Texas, ERCOT is adapting to ensure the reliability and efficiency of the electric system.” There are issues, as ERCOT points out, citing in particular the need to cope with sudden shifts in generation output and reduced inertia on the system, but they are just that, issues, not insurmountable problems.

These changing attitudes toward wind are reflected in the political arena as well. ERCOT and SPP span all or parts of 14 states (covering the Plains and beyond), 12 of which voted solidly for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election. But it would be a mistake to assume that the new president’s antipathy for renewable energy is widely shared in these red states. The chart below illustrates this dichotomy: Start with Texas in the south and move due north to North Dakota, all six of those states voted for Trump, and yet they have been prime beneficiaries of the windpower industry’s development in the past 10 years.

Installed Windpower Capacity By State

Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) is perhaps the best-known GOP windpower backer, proudly noting that he wrote the original production tax credit legislation that helped the industry get off the ground in 1992. He was also quoted last year warning candidate Trump that any changes to the PTC would only make it through Congress “over my dead body.”

Less well known, the industry also enjoys the backing of Kansas’ conservative governor, Sam Brownback. The staunch anti-tax Brownback has pushed through a series of supply side economic policies in Kansas that has thrown the state economy into a tailspin. At the same time, he is vice chair of the Governors’ Wind and Solar Energy Coalition, and is lobbying on behalf of continued federal support for the investment and production tax credits that have done so much to spur development of both the wind and solar industries.

In a recent letter to President Trump, Brownback and Gina Raimondo, the Democratic governor from Rhode Island who currently chairs the coalition, wrote: “The nation’s wind and solar energy resources are transforming low-income rural areas in ways not seen since the passage of the Homestead Act over 150 years ago. For example, U.S. wind facilities pay rural landowners $222 million a year, with more than $156 million going to landowners in areas with below-average incomes. In addition, $100 billion has been invested by companies in low-income counties, where some 70 percent of the nation’s wind farms are located.”

More broadly, the two continued: “Members of the coalition have seen the benefits of renewable energy firsthand, and agree that expanding renewable energy production is one of the best ways to meet the country’s growing demand for energy. Today’s wind and solar resources offer consumers nearly unlimited electric energy with no fuel costs, no national security impacts, and a number of environmental benefits. The boons of renewable energy can be virtually endless with your administration’s and Congress’ support of the key initiatives detailed here. Your support of these initiatives will allow our nation to capitalize on renewable resources, meet the needs of Americans and bolster the economy.” (The complete letter can be found here.)

Broad support can also be found for windpower in Texas—just don’t call it an environmental thing. For starters, while there is debate about former Gov. Rick Perry’s overall role in pushing wind’s development in the state, he did sign the 2005 legislation establishing the renewable energy transmission zones that has made the Texas “wind rush” a possibility. And Perry is certainly not the technology’s only backer across the state as this story from The Guardian makes abundantly clear.

Call it what you want—experience, economics, environmental protection—it all means the same thing: windpower is here to stay, regardless of who sits in the Oval Office.

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