Wind vs. Gas: Winter Wind Beats New Pipelines

January 8, 2019 | 4:30 pm
Photo: William Hope
Mike Jacobs
Senior Energy Analyst

With the cold weather upon us, and a lot of debate about how to supply our energy needs, we can take a look at the power of wind.  Wind is actually stronger in the wintertime when it gets colder. The advantages of using wind to reduce natural gas needs in cold weather are real, and especially relevant to the debate over whether or not it makes sense to invest more into gas pipelines.

Understanding the limits of fossil fuels and the role of renewable energy supply is central to debates about transitions to more renewable energy. The Union of Concerned Scientists has provided plenty of reasons to avoid an over-reliance on natural gas, so the questions about how to replace gas with renewable energy are very important.

Will building more windfarms mean less need for natural gas and natural gas pipelines? Yes. Wind in winter is a very good means to reduce the use of natural gas and the need for gas pipelines.

Some claim the existing gas pipeline system is inadequate for our wintertime energy needs because of the recent increased use of natural gas (methane) as fuel for power plants making electricity.  The crunch comes in winter, and shows as a gas pipeline shortfall in the Northeast because the majority of gas pipeline capacity is committed to home heating and other customers of the gas utilities.  Without the addition of renewable energy in winter, the gas power plants will compete with the demand from gas utilities’ residential and business customers.

Wind blowing offshore New England just gets stronger in winter.

Ready answers

Fortunately, we have a great new industry arriving in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic to address this issue under development: offshore wind.

There’s strong policy support for well-financed offshore wind in the Northeast, and that turns out to be a great replacement for gas used by power plants in winter.

We know this with some very specific information from a serious authority. The independent grid operator in New England, ISO-NE, recently published an estimate of how New England states’ commitments to building wind offshore would have produced energy and replaced natural gas.

Excellent results

Specifically, ISO-NE look at wind data, electric demand and natural gas used in power plants for the cold weather period of December 24 2017 through January 8, 2018.

This provides some impressive results. If 800 MW of offshore wind (the amount currently in permitting for delivery to Massachusetts), were in place, the ISO-NE study found, that amount alone would have avoided 9% of the natural gas used for electricity generation in that period. The offshore windfarms’ production in that cold snap would have been 70% of their potential, dramatically higher than the ~18% value used in most ISO planning efforts.

While that 70% figure was impressive, the concept isn’t news to us at UCS. We’ve convinced grid operators and FERC that reliability estimates for winter underestimate the reliability benefits available from wind. UCS described in comments to FERC that physics dictates that power from wind turbines (and some other generators) is greater in colder weather because colder air is heavier. For the same windspeed, colder air will produce more power from the turbine and thus more energy.

Data for the tens of thousands of existing land-based US wind turbines bear this out. Wind assessments and windfarm production tend to show higher production in winter than in summer. Wherever windfarms are built in the U.S., the total need for natural gas goes down. The arrival of offshore wind in the more densely populated East Coast offers this region a lot of renewable energy, and skilled jobs in the construction and operations.

The implications

Debates over how to supplement the energy supply can not overlook wind. The details of gas vs. wind are much more critical. The gas industry has its own dynamics, and investments in gas can lock in decisions and climate impacts for decades.  States along the East Coast have made the choice for new supplies from offshore wind. Now we have an alternative to gas that is renewable and carbon-free. Let’s get this alternative up and running.