Texas Wind Helps Keep the Lights On

August 31, 2011 | 12:15 pm
Laura Wisland
Former Contributor

I live near the San Francisco Bay, so while the rest of the country roasted this summer, I shivered in a sweatshirt. Texas is experiencing its fair share of summer heat and in mid-August a heat wave caused unexpected power failures at about 20 power plants, including one coal plant and several natural gas plants, just as people reached to crank up their air conditioners.

wind power, Texas, Gulf coast

Wind turbines on the Texas Gulf Coast. Photo: gliving.com

Apparently, everything is bigger in Texas, including its renewable energy. Instead of suffering from rolling blackouts, people stayed cool thanks in part due to a Texas-sized helping of wind power. The CEO of ERCOT, which manages the Texas grid, credited new wind farms along Texas’s Gulf Coast for helping meet peak demand in the hottest part of the day.

Making sure the lights stay on is a serious and complicated task, and being able to forecast the possibility of power shortages is paramount. Wind is by its nature a variable resource, but conventional power plants fail too, especially during extreme heat events, of which we expect to have more due to climate change.

Modernizing our electricity infrastructure to respond to sudden changes—whether they’re caused by an overheated power plant, a sudden burst of wind generation, or a transmission line kicked offline from a major storm—ensures we have a safe, clean, and reliable system. The larger the pool of electricity resources, the better a grid operator can balance out the lack of power in one area with a surplus of power in another. The Electric Power Research Institute has been working to identify how we can use energy storage technologies like batteries or flywheels to store excess electricity generation for times we need it the most. Giving electricity customers more detailed information about their electricity usage and price signals to discourage electricity consumption when demand is highest will help reduce peak demand, which is often supplied by the oldest and dirtiest power plants.

The resiliency of the Texas electricity grid and the large amount of wind power it supports is becoming a model for the rest of the country. When it comes to electricity, don’t mess with Texas—or its wind power.