For the third time in a month, wind energy protects consumers during cold snap

For the third time in a month, wind energy protects consumers during cold snap

Wind energy proved its value to California consumers last Thursday and Friday by providing a large amount of energy when natural gas prices and electricity prices spiked during a cold snap. In a replay of events seen twice in the last month across nearly every region of the country, wind energy played a critical role in keeping electricity and natural gas prices in check.

Specifically, wind energy provided around 2,000 MW of output at the time of peak demand last Thursday evening, and wind energy output remained high at around 2,500 MW for most of the rest of Thursday evening. This came at a critical time for the California grid operator, which issued a statewide “Flex Alert” on Thursday because “A shortage of natural gas triggered by extreme cold weather in much of the United States and Canada is impacting fuel supplies to Southern CA power plants and reducing electricity generation.”

Wind energy also protected California consumers from energy price spikes on Friday, when the grid operator remained on lower-level alert due to continuing natural gas shortages. Throughout the afternoon and evening peak demand period, wind energy provided in excess of 2,000 MW, and between 2,500 MW and 3,300 MW for much of that period.

Photo credit: First Wind

Both of these events, and the numerous other cold snap events in January in which wind energy helped keep energy prices in check and keep the lights on, illustrate the benefits of a diverse portfolio of energy resources that includes wind energy. The unexpected failures of many conventional power plants during these events, many caused by a shortage of natural gas, proved that no energy source is 100 percent reliable.

All power plants have always been backed up by all other power plants, and it is actually far cheaper to reliably integrate wind energy than large conventional power plants because changes in wind energy output occur gradually and are predictable, while conventional power plants fail instantly and without warning. Grid operators must keep expensive fast-acting reserves on hand 24/7 in case a large conventional power plant fails, while changes in wind output can be accommodated with far less expensive, slower-acting reserves.

Because it has no fuel cost, wind energy plays a critical role in protecting consumers from fuel price volatility. Through four separate mechanisms, wind energy keeps electricity and natural gas prices in check, both during extreme weather events and everyday grid operations. Specifically, wind energy:

  1. Directly offsets the use of expensive energy
  2. Drives prices down for all consumers in the electricity market
  3. Drives natural gas prices down for all consumers in the gas market, and
  4. Hedges against energy price volatility

Wind energy is also playing a critical role in protecting California and other parts of the country from drought. Nearly all conventional sources of electricity generation consume a tremendous amount of water, mostly for use in power plant cooling systems. Providing a typical household with electricity for a month consumes hundreds of gallons of water. Drought can even cause electric reliability problems by forcing conventional power plants offline if there is insufficient water for them to operate. In contrast, wind energy consumes virtually no water, conserving tens of billions of gallons of water per year.

Despite the clear evidence of wind energy’s role in protecting consumers and electric reliability last Thursday and Friday from failures caused by other fuel sources, a San Diego Union Tribune business columnist attempted to use the incident as part of its long-standing and discredited campaign against renewable energy.

Without any data or other evidence to support his claim, reporter Dan McSwain argues that the shortages were caused by California’s push for renewable energy. It is unclear how he can argue that an event that everyone, including the grid operator, understands was caused by natural gas supply shortages and compounded by the breakdown and retirement of the San Onofre nuclear plant, is somehow instead an indictment of renewable energy.

His attack piece then trots out some other thoroughly debunked fossil fuel industry myths.

First is the thoroughly discredited claim that wind energy’s pollution savings are reduced, or totally eliminated as he claims, by counteracting impacts on the efficiency of fossil-fired power plants. Last September, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory released thorough analysis demonstrating that wind energy reduces carbon dioxide pollution by 1190 pounds per MWh, based on real-world hourly emissions data from every power plant in the Western U.S. Wind was found to produce 99.8 percent of the expected emissions savings, as the negative impact of wind on the efficiency of fossil-fired power plants was found to be “negligible.”

McSwain next falsely claims that “the U.S. has cut carbon emissions more than any other nation,” which is directly contradicted by the World Bank data in the table below showing that U.S. carbon emissions reductions are far smaller than those of European wind energy leaders. Of course, he also ignores that wind energy is a major contributor to U.S. emissions reductions, cutting CO2 emissions by 100 million tons per year, the equivalent to taking 17 million cars off the road. In fact, wind energy’s emissions reductions accounted for about 15-20 percent of the total economy-wide emissions reductions seen over the 2005-2010 period, and thanks to newly installed wind, wind’s emissions reductions are now 50 percent higher than that. Moreover, some of the previous emissions reductions driven by natural gas electricity replacing coal electricity are now being reversed as natural gas prices increase, while wind energy continues to deliver sustained emissions reductions.


Change in CO2 emissions, 2005-2010

% Wind energy, end of 2010




















Finally, McSwain ties himself up in several false and misleading statements in an attempt to claim that renewable energy is expensive. Strangely, he starts off by admitting that he has no data to support that argument, as he falsely claims that “the actual costs of green energy are secret under state regulations.”

In fact, all power purchase agreements are publicly on file with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and they show that in the windiest parts of the country wind purchase agreements are being signed at prices at or below that of any other energy source. Numerous other government data sources confirm wind energy’s costs have fallen dramatically, with declines of more than 43 percent over the last four years.

McSwain then attempts to claim that a wind project in Mexico will cost 34 percent more to build than a gas power plant. The obvious problem with that comparison is that the fuel for the wind project will always be free, while the gas power plant faces ongoing (and likely increasing) fuel costs for the rest of its life. Comparing power plants based on the cost to build them, without looking at fuel costs, is like claiming that a gas-guzzler is a good deal because the initial price tag is lower than a more efficient vehicle. In fact, DOE data confirm that fuel and other operating costs make up about two-thirds of the cost of providing electricity from natural gas power plants, with the upfront capital costs that McSwain focuses on only accounting for about one quarter of the total cost. McSwain does at least attempt to cover his misleading argument with the understatement that, “I’ll note here that the [gas plant’s] actual price tag will rise with fuel costs.”

It is a positive sign that wind energy’s opponents are so desperate that the only attack they have left is to distort wind’s obvious success stories.


Michael Goggin is Vice President at Grid Strategies LLC, a DC-area consulting firm working on grid and markets issues for clean energy clients including AWEA. He was previously head of Research at AWEA.

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