Grid reliability, security and diversity: Another way wind works for America
“What happens when the wind doesn’t blow or the sun doesn’t shine?”
That’s a common question from those wanting to understand how grid operators integrate renewable energy.
Fortunately, the experts who keep the lights on every day find they can reliably handle large amounts of wind and solar energy.
Grid operators have always balanced major shifts in supply and demand. Factories, air conditioners and appliances turn on and off in waves, varying by time of day and season. Major spikes occur from events as simple as halftime during a football game, when millions of refrigerator doors open.
Large coal, gas, and nuclear power plants can also break down unexpectedly, suddenly removing significant amounts of electricity from the system.
Meanwhile, spread across 41 states, the output of America’s 53,000 utility-scale wind turbines stays relatively constant. Changes are slow and predictable based on weather forecasting, and are mostly canceled out by far greater variations in demand and other supply.
It’s generally more expensive for grid operators to accommodate the abrupt loss of a large conventional generator, because that requires keeping fast-acting backup resources “spinning” 24/7.
A prime example occurred during 2014’s Polar Vortex weather event. The bitter cold and loss of gas supply forced many conventional power plants to shut down abruptly. At the same time, high demand for home heating sent natural gas prices and electricity prices skyrocketing. However, wind turbines kept reliably generating electricity, saving Great Lakes and Mid-Atlantic consumers over $1 billion in two days.
The U.S. has enough installed wind power to supply the equivalent of 25 million homes. So utilities and grid operators have already had ample opportunity to figure out how to integrate wind energy.