Plan A: Wind Energy; Plan B: Operating Reserves
March 2, 2016
Opponents of wind energy have tried to argue that wind requires dedicated back up power, such that each megawatt (MW) of wind energy requires an equal MW of backup gas or some other polluting source of power to ‘guarantee’ power will be available when needed. This is, at best, overly simplistic and really could not be further from the truth. It also demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of how the power system works, and how system operators manage the ever existing variability that is inherent within the electricity system as a whole. In Ontario, for example, the system operator is the Independent Electricity System Operator (IESO). The IESO “works at the heart of Ontario’s power system ensuring there is enough power to meet the province’s energy needs in real time while also planning and securing energy for the future.”
There are a many number of things that contribute to the variable supply and demand of electricity in the grid. Our dishwashers, elevators, and industrial pumps all run when people choose to use them and not at the whim of system operators. The wires that transmit and distribute electricity to customers can fail due to falling trees or extreme storms; the substations that help move power can also unexpectedly catch fire or trip off line. The generators themselves, all of which have moving parts and generate heat, can also suddenly fail. And yes, wind energy, like most other things connected to the electric grid, also contributes to system variability.
Our electricity system is designed and operated for managing these ups and downs by using “reserves” – designed to account for the constant ebb and flow of all the components on the grid – from power users to power transmitters and of course, to power generators. In short, system operators are very much aware of system variability, and are well equipped to manage it. In fact, in the same way we can predict how demand will increase in the morning and decrease at night, we are able to predict changes in output from renewable resources such as wind. We are getting so good at managing wind energy these days, that when added to the grid, wind energy will reduce reliance on fossil fuel consumption and GHG emissions alike.
It is always important to recognize and manage the various constraints that different sources of power have. Wind energy, in the early years, presented challenges due to the variable nature of the power. However, deciding to not throw the baby out with the bathwater, system operators and government’s recognized the inherent value of a limitless, emission-free fuel source, and have since then overcome the challenges associated with integrating a variable fuel source. This includes maintaining that adequate tools and planning processes are in place to ensure the reliable integration of wind energy, allowing us to capitalize on the emissions free electricity from wind turbines. Many jurisdictions around the world achieve well over 10 per cent of their energy from wind power, including several regions in Canada – they must be doing something right!