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Clean Power Wind farm in the snow (Netherlands).

Published on January 24th, 2014 | by Silvio Marcacci

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Forget Intermittency: NREL Says Wind Energy Can Boost Grid Reliability

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January 24th, 2014 by  

We’ve all heard the warnings about how intermittent renewables could “crash” the grid if for instance all of a sudden the wind stops blowing and grid operators are left in the lurch for power when they need it. But what if wind turbines actually improve grid reliability?

May sound far-fetched to some people, but that’s exactly what the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) reports in the new study Active Power Controls from Wind Power: Bridging the Gaps. 

Previous studies have focused on wind energy forecasting as the key to balancing wind’s availability and the power grid’s demand, but this new hypothesis could vastly expand the relationship between wind turbines and the grid.

Wind farm in the snow (Netherlands).

Wind farm in the snow image via CleanTechnica

How Does Wind Perform With The Grid?

NREL undertook the study with the Electric Power Research Institute, an organization comprised of more than 1,000 members (most of whom are electric utilities) and the University of Colorado, so renewable energy naysayers will be hard pressed to dismiss this study as an environmentalist pipe dream.

Analysts studied multiple power system simulations, control simulations, and field tests at NREL’s National Wind Technology Center to determine how if wind could provide ancillary services in wholesale electricity markets, how wind farms affect system frequency in the Western U.S. grid system, and if using wind farms to actively provide power control to the grid affects turbine performance and structural integrity.

And the outcome of all these studies? Wind energy can not only support the grid by ramping power output up and down to enhance system reliability, but that using wind farms to provide active power control is economically beneficial, all with negligible damage to the turbines themselves.

Wind Energy, Making The Grid Stronger and Cheaper

These are potentially game-changing findings. “The study’s key takeaway is that wind energy can act in an equal or superior manner to conventional generation when providing active power control, supporting the system frequency response, and improving reliability,” said Erik Ela, NREL analyst.

Active power control helps grid operators balance system demand with generation at various times throughout the day, helping prevent power flow above or below the ideal grid frequency and involuntary load shedding – preventing both potential blackouts and turbine damage.

Making America’s grid more flexible and integrating renewables is an important imperative. Without long-overdue transmission system investments, grid operators are often forced to use high-cost (and typically fossil fuel) “peaker” power plants when demand surges or baseload power plants go offline.

Intermittency Mitigated By Recent Developments

The traditional issue facing wind energy in this context is that it can’t be “turned on” by grid operators whenever they need it. Unless the wind is blowing, turbines can’t generate electricity.

But wind has shown its chops in helping keep the lights on as extreme weather has hit the U.S. in recent memory – just consider the fact that wind energy was credited with preventing blackouts in Texas and parts of the Midwest when the polar vortex spiked power demand and forced some power plants offline.

NREL’s report also notes that almost all grid operators across the U.S., as well as many power systems outside the areas covered by regional grids, are using wind farms in dispatch procedures to manage transmission congestion at five-minute intervals – meaning it’s now a generation resource to be dispatched (for free) when needed.

“Utilities and independent system operators are all seeking strategies to better integrate wind and other variable generation into their electric systems,” said Ela. “Few have considered using wind power to support power system reliability.”

Wind energy has become one of the fastest-growing sources of electricity in America, and it’s a critical source of generation if we’re going to decarbonize our economy and slow climate change. With NREL’s report, perhaps grid operators will start to see wind energy as an energy system imperative, not just an environmental imperative.

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About the Author

Silvio is Principal at Marcacci Communications, a full-service clean energy and climate-focused public relations company based in Washington, D.C.



  • Bob Shultis

    Here in the US, we desperately need a well planned, well executed smart grid, capable of moving energy from wind production areas to key energy consumption areas, analyzing and responding to demand patterns and reacting accordingly. The technology is there, but is the political will to spend the money?

  • Giuseppe

    Did I miss something here? Is it saying anything more than “adding more wind power decreases reliance on fuel-based power production” ? I read the article three times and can’t seem to find what exactly the news is here.

    • Bob_Wallace

      This kind of sums up the news –

      “We’ve all heard the warnings about how intermittent renewables could “crash” the grid if for instance all of a sudden the wind stops blowing and grid operators are left in the lurch for power when they need it. But what if wind turbines actually improve grid reliability?

      May sound far-fetched to some people, but that’s exactly what the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) reports….”

      • http://klas-resonerar.blogspot.com Klas2k

        The issue with this is of course that the overall efficiency of wind power decreases (since you cannot run att as much capacity as the wind at the moment permits at all times) which makes wind power even more costly

        • Bob_Wallace

          As wind generation becomes a larger and larger there will be some curtailment when wind output exceeds demand.

          But with wind now (apparently) around 4 cents/kWh a 25% curtailment (huge) would increase the overall price of wind to 5 cents. And that would still leave it the cheapest way to bring new generation to the grid.

          Of course, down the road we’ll have more storage and dispatchable load to suck up that extra and none will be wasted.

          • http://klas-resonerar.blogspot.com Klas2k

            According to all the various calculations I have seen wind is at best about the same as Nuclear (various calcs for instance here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cost_of_electricity_by_source).

            Maybe you are able to bring down wind to $40/MWh – dont which eficience u are talking about then though, on the other hand cheap nuclear is being built in india and china as well were they claim around $30-40/mwh…

          • Bob_Wallace

            You need to look more carefully at those cheap nuclear prices. Quite often the person making the claim “conveniently” fails to include financing costs which can easily double the price. And we can’t hire engineers and construction workers at Chinese/Indian wages in Europe and the US.

            Your Wiki link doesn’t exist.

            The cheapest nuclear in the West lately is Vogtle. If it doesn’t run into more delays and cost overruns. And future reactors wouldn’t be able to borrow money at the rate Vogtle received. Nuclear is 11+ cents. Plus subsidies.

            Wind is ~4 cents. Without subsidies.

          • A Real Libertarian
          • Bob_Wallace

            What I guessed. Those flawed 2019 EIA predictions again….

            Wind is going to rise from 4c to 8c and solar from ~8c to 13c.

            Right………………………………..

          • http://klas-resonerar.blogspot.com Klas2k

            The only reason wind/solar would be more expensive is because of increased cost for getting land to put then on as I see it – so i doubt the costs will rise.
            However, apart from political issues, nuclear will go down as well..

          • Bob_Wallace

            Do you realize how much nuclear would have to drop in price to move from over 11 cents to under 5 cents? It ain’t gonna happen. Quit dreaming.

            Quit getting distracted by land required, fuel density and all the other bogus arguments that the nuclear industry is making. Look at the final price. The price is what matters.

          • http://klas-resonerar.blogspot.com Klas2k

            Ah, there was a parenthesis in the end- remove that and the link rosk:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cost_of_electricity_by_source

            The low cost on nuclear includes financing with a 5% interest rate…
            Yes wages are more expensive still in the west, but given the incredible number of windmills just to produce the same amount as nuclear power plant (we are talking about roughlt 1000x as much land) i doubt that wind, later on, will be that cheap anyway (just thinking about land costs), even though of course US has a lot of land, it might be a bit different than in Europe…

          • Bob_Wallace

            Klas, the cost of wind is dropping and is expected to continue to drop. The PPA for wind includes the cost of land and, in the US, we have no shortage of excellent wind sites. And as our technology is improving we are extending our ability to produce electricity from lower wind speed sites.

            Land is tighter in parts of Europe. Germany, for example, it taking down older, smaller turbines and replacing them with larger turbines in order to get the most out of their onshore resources.

            Those smaller turbines are being refurbished and sold on to countries with good resources but not a lot of capital.

  • Peebles Squire

    Great news for wind power! A reliable and affordable resource, wind power’s costs have dropped by 43 percent in 4 years, making it an attractive proposition. The fact that wind energy is so easily integrated into the grid makes the prospect all the more exciting.

    Wind power has already saved the day twice this year: when traditional fossil plants shut down during the recent cold snap, and natural gas supplies became scarce, sending prices soaring, wind power stepped in to provide much needed energy, keeping the lights on and acting as a buffer against fuel price spikes.

    For more, check out AWEA’s blog, Into the Wind: http://aweablog.org/blog/post/wind-power-once-again-saves-millions-by-keeping-energy-prices-in-check-during-cold-snap

    Peebles Squire

    AWEA

  • Dave2020

    “the passage of a bill last year that began the long journey toward offshore wind in the U.S.”

    Political ideology (investment must be ‘business-led’) is the problem here. A shift to capital grants for R&D and infrastructure build is the answer:-

    http://www.delmarvanow.com/article/20140126/NEWS/301260001?nclick_check=1
    “Amid questions about the total price tag and how much the energy would cost for consumers, Hopper said, the state has the authority.”

    “If we can’t find a way to build an offshore wind farm at a price this legislature says they are comfortable with, it shouldn’t happen,”

    No state should procure the building of a new bridge without ensuring that the technical specification was the best, and construction quality control was of a high standard. But the US does, and then pays the price 20-50 years later.

    Building new electricity infrastructure (without importing foreign tech.) would be of far greater benefit to the economy than any number of bridges. Make this windfarm a state funded demonstration project, where the auction is only open to floating wind/wave that incorporates energy storage.

    If there’s no debt to repay the electricity will be dirt cheap, and the viability of the innovation will be proven. (or not, as the case may be) The incumbent industries are never gonna spend their own (borrowed) money on this.

  • Bruce Morgan Williams

    In a few decades, we’ll be looking at a grid generation scenario something like this (hopefully)
    10% nukes (base load)
    10% nat gas (peak loads)
    80% wind, solar, hydro (wide area regional output smoothing)

    • RobS

      There are a small number of recently added coal plants so I suspect for the next 30 years or so coal will probably fall to around 10% too. Being more efficient these newer plants and the retirement of the oldest, least efficient plants means coal consumption and emissions will fall by 80-90% even if coal generation only falls by 65-75%

  • Dave2020

    “using wind farms to actively provide power control to the grid.”

    Spain has already demonstrated this in operation:-
    http://www.windpowermonthly.com/article/1209700/integration-success-leads-easy-curtailment

    Doesn’t alter the fact that whole-system efficiency and operation’s costs can be greatly improved by the sensible integration of before-generator energy storage. Curtailment = waste = falling capacity factors, in future.

    • Matt

      Its a cost question today. Are you better to build 100MW of turbines and 10MW of storage to provide the smoothing. Or 110MW of turbines and use curtailment? Not saying I have the amount of storage correct in that trade off. And yes storage has many other useful area. Leveling out transmission congestion, support micro grids allow stable sub-grids during disruption on the larger grid (in US think storms like Sandy or some of the western wild fires). But the key idea here is that you can have a lot more wind and PV without storage than was thought possible 5 years ago.

      • Dave2020

        Yes, I agree with that, but your earlier comment “If one stops I have to fill the 1MW gap.” misses the point. It’s not about a single turbine stopping, or even 100 turbines stopping, for that matter.

        A nameplate 1GW windfarm is a problem when it’s generating near 1GW, and even more so as you deploy more total capacity. Widespread good wind is a more common occurrence than widespread calm. The wind may cost nothing, but over-capacity is a waste of resources and investment, as well as adding more to running costs. Storage raises capacity factors, idle capacity cuts them.

        I’ve argued for years that innovative offshore design can transform renewable power by incorporating before-generator energy storage in wind/wave and tidal installations. The US and Europe have yet to get their heads around the idea. I wonder if Japan has more imaginative engineers?
        http://www.nippon.com/en/views/b01506/

        The question remains – Is “a lot more” renewables without storage the BEST way forward?

        My scenario (compared to Bruce Morgan Williams’) is for no nukes, no fossil fuel and 100% storage-enabled renewables in a decade. (Ever the optimist. I know it won’t happen. Industry and governments aren’t that smart.)

      • JamesWimberley

        Storage is technology-agnostic, A gigawatt of pumped storage replaces more than a gigawatt of spare wind, since at other times it can be storing excess solar or nuclear electricity. The optimisation of the whole portfolio is a pretty problem, but surely soluble with the right tools.

        We should not even fetishise the laudable goal of 100% renewable electricity. As we get closer to the goal, it may be more efficient in terms of the overall carbon emissions constraint to have the last few percent supplied by rarely used reserve gas plants, and offset their emissions by reforestation or another form of sequestration.

        • Bob_Wallace

          People might want to read the Budischak, et al. paper in which they model an almost 100% renewable (wind/solar) grid. They found that it was necessary to use a very small amount of natural gas to keep the price affordable.

          https://docs.google.com/file/d/1NrBZJejkUTRYJv5YE__kBFuecdDL2pDTvKLyBjfCPr_8yR7eCTDhLGm8oEPo/edit

          If we set a goal of 90% or even 80% renewable and started working hard toward reaching it we’ll probably figure out some way to either make the last percentage renewable or, as James suggests, offset the carbon we are forced to use.

      • Bob_Wallace

        Agree. Overbuilding is likely to be cheaper than building storage. Up to a point.

        Assume there’s a grid that has all the wind it can use at “peak wind”. Adding another wind farm might mean that 10% of the time that farm would have to curtail.

        Let’s say that the LCOE for the farm if they had a market for all their product was $0.05/kWh. Dropping their capacity factor 10% due to required curtailment would mean the LCOE would go up about 10%, making the price about $0.055.

        With wind and solar heading under five cents tossing away/curtailing is going to be cheaper than storing for a while. Cheap storage and the math changes.

  • Matt

    Bob did you write this report? I know you been saying for years just over build the number of wind turbines. Another crack in the gas peaking plant story. Even without storage we can go almost no fossil fuel for electric.
    And for those not hearing the air waves in Ky, there is already a PAC trying to unseat the current “coal hating, liberal” senator. So even in coal/tobacco love Ky, big coal is shaking in it boots. What was interesting the whole thing was on how she didn’t love (stand up for) coal, only in the last line did they mention her not being on Ky side.

  • JamesWimberley

    Many people confuse variability (which is true of wind) with unreliabilty and unpredictability (untrue ). Large fossil and nuclear plants are highly controllable but when they do have problems, these are unpredictable and, by the lumpy nature of the plants, large. Adding the speed of ramping up and down introduces yet another dimension on which wind scores well. However, it doesn’t remove the need for large despatchable reserve capacity to cope with the meteorological variability.

    • Matt

      If I have 1000 1MW turbines and one stops I have to fill the 1MW gap. If I have a 500MW coal plant of 1GW nuclear plant and it stops it is a much bigger issue to deal with.
      I was in a 500MW coal plant once when it was hit by lighting and knocked of the grid, all hell broke loose for 30-40 mins while they tried to get back on line. More lights flashing and sirens than carter has pills.
      So the fact that the come in smaller incurments (1-4, ok hearing 7 for offshore) makes it easier to deal with. As for just do what we have done for the last 100 years with coal plants just more that you will even need to handle peak. And then spread them out over a large area.

  • Benny Nyberg

    With a reasonable balanced portfolio, wind provides a substantial “free fuel” contribution. Solar is another “free fuel” contributor especially during mid-day to afternoon peak hours. Then ofcource all of this get even better with storage.

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