Finding Where the Wind Blows

An electrical emergency in Texas, USA last week has grid officials and power companies re-examining how they manage wind energy, an increasingly popular but potentially fickle power source.

Wind turbines don't emit greenhouse gases, unlike conventional power plants. But wind power requires astute handling or it can affect reliability and power prices. Grid officials have fretted for some time that construction of enormous wind farms could jeopardize grid stability.

In response to its shortfall, Texas officials now are speeding up plans to improve wind forecasting. U.S. officials also are looking at other nations that manage far larger wind resources deftly.

California's grid operator is seeking bids from wind consultants. It also is considering ways to tailor power consumption by big users so they could more closely match wind production, as well as ways to store wind energy for use later.

"Wind needs a dance partner," says David Hawkins, principal engineer for renewable energy at the grid-running California Independent System Operator in Folsom, Calif.

A cold front blew through West Texas on Feb. 26, temporarily lifting wind production. When it subsided, wind speeds dropped, turbines slowed and productivity dropped by 80% to 300 megawatts from about 1,700.

The situation was exacerbated by greater-than-expected energy demand and by lower availability of some fossil-fuel units. To get the system back in balance, the grid operator declared an emergency and tapped big customers who had agreed to be cut in exchange for cash payments.

The problem "showed us we need much better wind forecasting tools," said Kent Saathoff, vice president of system operations at the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, a quasipublic, nonprofit corporation that operates most of the state's high-voltage transmission system.

Currently, ERCOT accepts estimates of energy production from turbine owners or their agents. Texas now is working on building up its own computer capacity and monitoring to improve forecasting. It isn't clear how much the effort will cost.

Read more at the Wall Street Journal