It might be hard for anyone who just made it through Wyoming’s recent “breezy” winter to believe, but wind power production in the state – and growth levels in the nation as a whole – was down in 2015 due to overall lower wind speeds , according to a report issued last month by the U.S. Department of Energy.
And one state wind power researcher said that drop could translate into as much as a $145 million wholesale loss for the Wyoming’s wind power companies.
The April 21 report on the DOE’s Energy Information Administration website, “Today in Energy,” showed that nationally, power from wind turbines grew 5.1 percent last year, the smallest increase since 1999. In Wyoming, the decline wasn’t just limited to a drop in growth, as actual power generated from windfarms in the state fell by double digits.
“Obviously, this is not what the industry wants to see – they make more money when the wind blows more,” said University of Wyoming mechanical engineering professor Jonathon Naughton, director of the school’s Wind Energy Research Center. “However, they do expect to have good years and bad years. A simple way to attach a figure to this would be the wholesale cost of wind power.
“Of course in a big year, the excess would be similar. As the (report) says, this is just one year and should not be taken as a general trend.”
Naughton came up with the $145 million number by figuring in current generation in the state using a price of $40 per megawatt hour and a typical 35 percent generation capacity.
Renewable electricity analyst Cara Marcy, one of the report’s co-authors, said some western states – like neighboring Colorado – saw their electricity outputs from wind hold steady as more projects came online. However, the fall off was more apparent in Wyoming, where last year’s turbine count remained at 2014 levels, as no new windfarms joined the grid in the past year.
“Wyoming is a different story,” she states. “Since it’s the same amount of capacity between the two years, we saw a direct impact on just wind patterns, and we saw a decline in generation of Wyoming of around 14 percent.”
Marcy said such variations in output due to shifting wind patterns are fairly typical. Her report showed weather patterns that bypassed western states in 2015 actually brought stronger winds to the central part of the country, where wind generation growth was most pronounced last year.
She said last year’s drop doesn’t cast doubt on wind’s potential as viable and reliable renewable energy source.
“That doesn’t mean that wind and solar are unreliable technologies,” Marcy said. “We just have to be smart in how we’re managing these technologies, and determining when we want to turn things on and off.”
Naughton agreed with that assessment, saying “Wind is variable, and, as a result, there will be up years and down years as the wind averages about its statistical mean. This year was just a more extreme example of a down year. There is the potential for longer term variations as well as weather patterns shift, but those typically happen over much longer periods.”
Naughton, who was the author of a paper on the effects of geographic diversity on overall impact on renewable energy production in California (a primary consumer of Wyoming wind energy), said peaks and valleys in production are all part of the game for the state’s wind industry, which is just one piece of the total-sum renewables picture.
“That just is going to be reality for variations inherent in renewables,” he said. “Diversifying renewables is critical to help alleviate these problems. What might be a down year in one location might be an up year elsewhere. If we can move power around effectively, these ups and downs have a lower impact on the operation of the grid.”
According to the report, year-to-year changes in wind generation reflect both the changes in wind capacity and yearly variations in the wind resource. Wind resources reflect seasonal wind patterns, which vary based on regional factors and are subject to annual climate variations.
Wind is variable, and, as a result, there will be up years and down years as the wind averages about its statistical mean. This year was just a more extreme example of a down year. There is the potential for longer term variations as well as weather patterns shift, but those typically happen over much longer periods.
Wind generation potential follows seasonal patterns, which vary across the country, according to the DOE. Wind speeds in Wyoming, Colorado and Texas peak in the spring months, while California generates more wind power in June. New England states see their strongest speeds during the winter, when electrical demands in the region are also at their highest.Wind generation capacity in Wyoming grew from 288 megawatts in 2007 to more than 1,400 megawatts in 2010, but plateaued after that as no new wind windfarms have been completed since then. That figure could go up relatively soon, however, several projects are currently in various stages of the development process, including long-awaited Chokecherry and Sierra Madre (CCSM) project south of Rawlins. The project, which has been in the works since 2006, will be the largest wind farm in North America when finished, supplying enough electricity to power up to a million homes. (See story in the upcoming May print edition of the Wyoming Business Report.)
Naughton calls CCSM a “watershed project” for Wyoming, saying it shows that the state can build large wind farms that can have “true economic impact.”
“At this point in the state’s evolution, it has to look to these new economies – such as wind – that can contribute to the state’s economy,” Naughton said. “With CCSM’s lead, I would think that others will gain confidence in the ability to export electricity produced from Wyoming’s world-class wind resources.
“Of course, the importance of transmission development to this outcome can’t be understated. … As we develop these transmission resources and large wind projects, then the ability to attract industry based on our ability to generate inexpensive renewable power to complement our other electricity production should be a focus.”
However, Naughton said, all these visions are unrealistic “if we can’t get CCSM off the ground.”
“Hence my use of watershed moment attached with the CCSM project,” Naughton added.
An update on the Chokecherry and Sierra Madre (CCSM) project will be one of the topics during a panel discussion on Wyoming wind power development at the WBR’s Energy Summit in Cheyenne on May 19. (For more information on the summit, or to register, click here.)
Nationally, wind energy plants produced 191 terawatthours of electricity in 2015, accounting for 4.7 percent of the country’s net electric power generation, up from 4.4 percent in 2014. Wind was the second-largest source of electricity produced from renewable sources, behind hydroelectricity, and 11 states generated more than 10 percent of their total electricity generation from wind. The report said both the “absolute amount of wind generation and wind’s share of total U.S. electricity generation have risen every year since at least 1999.”
The DOE estimates that wind power could account for up to 20 percent of the nation’s power by 2030.
Wind capacity additions grew by 12.9 percent in 2015, an increase over the previous two years. In 2015, 8.1 gigawatts of wind capacity was installed, representing 41 percent of total capacity additions and bringing the total U.S. wind capacity to 73 gigawatts.
The Energy Information Administration projects wind generation will increase by 16 percent in 2016, as significant capacity additions are expected to come online, adding another 6 gigawatts (9 percent) to operating wind capacity. Based on those additions, and the expected performance of wind turbines in each region, wind is projected to supply more than 5 percent of U.S. electricity generation in 2016. Texas, which recently completed a 3,600-mile electrical transmission network, remains the nation’s largest producer of wind power, accounting for 44 percent of the U.S.’s wind capacity additions in 2015 and 24 percent of all the nation’s wind power overall.
According to the administration, wind plant generation variability occurs over different time scales, from “sub-hourly to seasonally and even annually,” reflecting variations in wind speeds. Unexpected drops in output may require grid operators to schedule other sources of power on short notice. Furthermore, because the federal tax credit for utility-scale wind energy is based on generation volumes, lower wind speeds can mean reduced tax credits, as well.