The Dangerous Power of Wind

By Robert Freehing

A November 5, 2011 article in the New York Times emphasizes the “danger” of excess wind generation in Bonneville Power Authority’s service territory. A perfect storm last year poured heavy rain in the Pacific Northwest and nearly overloaded Bonneville’s electric system with simultaneously huge amounts of wind power and hydropower, at the same time that customer demand for electricity was low. Since electric grids need continuously to balance supply and demand for power, or risk blackouts, this was problem. The stormy backdrop, with wind companies putting up more and more wind turbines in their relentless efforts to topple Bonneville’s grid, provides some extra drama.

The article describes how Bonneville is responding by creating a distributed energy system that produces and stores heat in people’s homes for the purpose of sopping up excess wind power. The heat storage can be controlled by the grid operator.

The article also flashes quickly on the fact that Bonneville was able to keep the grid stable even when the region was—albeit briefly— getting 100% of its power from renewable energy.

The ironies here are thick. For decades we have been told that renewable energy could never scale up to where it will provide more than a tiny fraction of our energy. Yet, Bonneville was facing the opposite problem in 2010—the entire Pacific Northwestern US was being flooded with renewable energy, while coal, natural gas and nuclear power were pushed aside. Not in some wildly distant utopian future; last year.

Another irony is the role of nuclear power in this “danger” to Bonneville’s grid. Bonneville had to deal with their problem—a crisis of having too much renewable energy— by taking the extraordinary action of dialing down the output of a nuclear plant. Nuclear plants are not designed to do that very easily; they just like to radiate constant uninterrupted power. The inflexibility of nuclear plants makes them something of a misfit in a renewable energy grid which requires responsive intelligence. So, given the choice of wind or nuclear—one powered by forces of dynamic change, the other by what appears to provide rock solid stable power—which one gets the blame for being a trouble maker?

The question is not theoretical. Bonneville is thinking about charging the wind generators for the home heat storage systems that cost $1000 each.