Last week’s power blackouts, especially in Texas, exposed some of the shortcomings of wind energy.
That’s not the same thing as saying frozen wind turbines caused the near collapse of the electrical grid in Texas, despite the statements of conservative critics. The evidence from the Electric Reliability Council of Texas points to failure of thermal sources of generation, especially natural gas equipment that froze up when it was needed most.
But wind power shouldn’t get off without blame, not because it failed, but because it couldn’t be counted on as a viable alternative when everything else did. The reason is because there are really two kinds of power, not coal and wind, but base and peaking.
Base load is the amount of electricity needed to meet the daily power requirements of homes, businesses and factories. Coal-fired plants and nuclear stations traditionally have been used for base load, because output doesn’t vary much and they can’t be easily turned on and off.
Peak load is the extra power needed when demand spikes, often during extreme weather. To generate peak load, some utilities have turned to natural gas plants, which burn cleaner than coal and can be started up more quickly. The downside of natural gas, even when the infrastructure doesn’t fail, is volatility of pricing and, at times, a supply crunch. Natural gas is more available to utilities in summer than winter.
What about wind? It’s carbon free, and the U.S. Energy Department says electricity from wind farms tends to be sold at a fixed price over a long period of time, which mitigates some of the price uncertainty. The problem is it doesn’t always blow when you need it.
This makes wind power more of a fuel saver that allows utility companies to reduce CO2 emissions at fossil fuel plants when times are good. But the wind might not be there during the July heatwave or the February polar plunge, which is why turbines replace coal power more than they replace coal plants.
The solution isn’t to build more wind turbines. It’s to invest in developing large-scale power storage. That kind of storage is not possible right now, which means the grid has to constantly balance supply and demand.
“To really make the vision that we want to get to,” Jim Robb, CEO of the North American Electric Reliability Corp. told NBC News, “you’re going to have to have batteries deployed in many orders of magnitude beyond what we have now.”
U.S. power plants produce about a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, compared to 17% for trucks and cars. To make the fight against climate change more transformational than aspirational, the focus should turn to developing power storage that can be saved for a non-windy day.