Windpower's Warning


ERCOT’s February emergency suggests storage capacity is needed to support renewables.

ERCOT’s February emergency suggests storage capacity is needed to support renewables.

Fortnightly Magazine - May 2008

What do the months of March 1979, January 2001, and February 2008 almost have in common? In March 1979, a loss-of-coolant accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear station brought the expanding nuclear power industry in the United States to a dead stop. Only a handful of reactors were completed post-TMI, with the majority of projects abandoned or converted to an alternative technology.

In January 2001, the recently deregulated power market in California suffered a complete meltdown requiring the state to begin buying needed power. That in turn sent paralysis through other progressing Regional Transmission Organizations. Quickly discarded were names such as SETRANS, Desert Star, and GridSouth, as well as other would-be centralized dispatch markets.

February 2008 could have been a similarly defining moment for the U.S. windpower industry. However, in this case ERCOT averted a crisis, preventing that date from becoming a sort of Waterloo for windpower.

At just after 6:30 p.m. on February 26, the Texas power market experienced a sudden frequency drop, initiating second-stage emergency procedures. Operating reserve resources known as LAARs (Load Acting As a Resource) were utilized to rapidly add about 1,100 MW of windpower capacity to the strained system. ERCOT, the Texas system operator, cited a steep drop in windpower output as a contributing cause. ERCOT restored stability to the system over the course of a three-hour period, and in mid-March issued a preliminary report on the event (see, What Happened in ERCOT ). But a nagging question remains: If this event had caused system transients, significant power outages and equipment failure, could it have become a “defining moment” for the windpower industry leading to a significant shift in public and political attitudes toward wind expansion?

To suggest the February ERCOT incident could have been windpower’s Three Mile Island is admittedly an over-dramatization. But current projections of wind expansion in West Texas show that windpower capacity in the region likely will double over the next two years, from the current level of roughly 5,000 MW to upwards of 10,000 MW by the summer of 2010. What would have been the consequences of losing twice as much output on February 27th when the wind died down more than expected in West Texas?

Current state-by-state Renewable Portfolio Standard targets for installed wind capacity pose a major challenge. Many states have mandates for 20 to 25 percent of demand to be met by windpower over the next 15 to 20 years, up from only a fraction of a percent today. So the wind industry might soon face a defining moment that will, at a minimum, force the utility industry to reconsider the pace of windpower development.

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Many windpower promoters contend that such an event can be avoided by improved forecasting, better operating procedures, aggressive demand-management programs, increased reserve requirements, and other techniques. These changes are being examined in ongoing wind-integration studies, and most show potential for