Wind Energy Helps Save Day as Fossil Fuel Plants Falter and Electricity Demand Surges Across Plains Due to Winter Storm

February 4, 2011

Across the Great Plains this week, wind energy played a major role in helping keep the lights on as the region dealt with a record winter storm.
Over the last few days we've learned more about the events that led to the rolling blackouts that occurred Wednesday morning in Texas. Wind energy played a critical role in limiting the severity of the blackouts, providing enough electricity to keep the power on for about three million typical households. ERCOT, the Texas grid operator, has confirmed that wind energy was providing between 3,500 and 4,000 MW of electricity (about 7% of ERCOT demand at that time), roughly what it was forecast and scheduled to provide, during the critical 5-7 AM window on Wednesday when the grid needed power the most. In an interview with the Texas Tribune, ERCOT CEO Trip Doggett put it this way: "I'm not aware of any nuclear plant problems, and I'm not aware of any specific issues with wind turbines having to shut down due to icing. I would highlight that we put out a special word of thanks to the wind community because they did contribute significantly through this timeframe. Wind was blowing, and we had often 3,500 megawatts of wind generation during that morning peak, which certainly helped us in this situation."
We've also learned what did cause the rolling blackouts: a large number of fossil-fired power plants broke down and failed to provide the amount of electricity they were scheduled to provide. The grid operator and others have confirmed that 50 power plants totaling 7,000 MW of power capacity experienced outages and went offline due to the cold weather. At least two of these were large coal power plants that went offline due to pipes freezing or breaking at the plants. Some gas-fired plants also experienced outages due to the cold, and some gas-fired plants were unable to produce as scheduled due to inadequate pressure in natural gas pipelines due to high demand. In addition, an estimated 12,000 MW of coal and gas-fired power plants were offline and undergoing maintenance during this time period, making them unavailable to provide electricity. While there are scattered reports that a few of Texas's roughly 7,000 wind turbines experienced reduced output due to the weather, the vast majority of the fleet was unaffected and continued producing electricity on schedule.
Mack Grady, an electrical engineering professor at UT Austin, has also released data collected from monitoring points on the Texas grid showing large amounts of wind energy flowing out of West Texas to help stabilize the Texas grid as fossil-fired power plants elsewhere in the state failed and went offline.
Elsewhere across the Great Plains, wind energy also helped keep the lights on as the region dealt with increased electricity demand and other disruptions caused by the storm. Data from the Midwest Independent System Operator (MISO), which provides power to parts of 13 states in the upper Midwest, show that wind energy was providing a large amount of electricity through the height of the storm. From noon Wednesday to noon Thursday, wind was producing an average of 5,350 MW, roughly 7% of the region's power needs. From noon Thursday to noon today, wind averaged 6,175 MW of output, about 8.25% of the region's demand.

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