Wind Energy: A Reliable Part of Today’s Energy Mix
December 6, 2018
As demand for clean electricity ramps up, Canada will increase its reliance on wind energy as a key technology that contributes low-cost power and flexibility to a modernized electricity grid.
Today Canadians rely on a much more diverse set of electricity generation sources than in the past – including a growing amount of wind energy. But will a more diverse and decentralized electricity grid be as reliable as historical grids that had a smaller number of large generating stations powered by a limited range of fuels? The answer is resoundingly “yes”.
Strength in diversity
The Pan Canadian Wind Integration Study – the largest of its kind ever done in Canada – concluded that this country’s energy grid can be both highly reliable and one-third wind powered. Several factors account for this reality:
Wind turbine technology is evolving. Larger wind turbines and increased digitalization have steadily increased capacity factors for wind energy, meaning they are now producing more energy, more of the time. Technology changes are also allowing wind energy to enhance its ability to provide many of the ancillary services that help grid operators maintain reliability in the case of system imbalances or emergencies – services wind energy can often supply to the grid more quickly and cost-effectively than conventional generation.
Variability is nothing new. Large grids were created precisely to manage the inherent variability of energy generation and use. Even sources such as fossil-fuel generating stations occasionally go offline due to maintenance and other issues. And demand can fluctuate dramatically hour-by-hour. All generation sources rely on other sources of generation to help address variability in both production and demand.
Grid management is improving. Wind and other renewable sources are more variable than conventional sources, but grid-management tools are keeping up with the challenge. System operators have several options for balancing an evolving electricity grid. This includes improved wind energy forecasting and smart-grid-driven abilities to adjust demand when needed. Ongoing transmission investments allow for an even greater diversity of energy sources to be connected, and for electricity to be shared across larger areas. There is also energy storage in the reservoirs of hydro dams, and various promising new electricity storage options are emerging.
Diversity pays dividends. With a diverse generation mix, grid operators can leverage the complementary strengths of diverse types of generation while at the same time reducing the challenge of coping with the sudden loss of a single large source. Wind energy’s particular benefits, for example, include having no fuel costs or water use, as well as ease of build-out when new generation is needed. Increased use of wind energy is also consistent with the need to transition towards a low-carbon economy.
A marginal impact on reserve power needs
Grid operators always maintain reserve generation capacity above typical peak demands. But even with the addition of a variable resource like wind energy, ongoing advancements in grid management mean that only incremental additional reserves are needed.
The Pan Canadian Wind Integration calculated additional reserve requirements for the integration of significant amounts of wind energy. For example, the study found that if Alberta increased its wind energy capacity from 1,500 MW to 17,700 MW, reserves would need to increase by only 430 MW or 2.4 per cent of total wind energy capacity. In most of the rest of Canada the percentage would be even lower.
Real world experience supports these conclusions. In 2013, Texas grid-manager ERCOT compared operational data with earlier projections of the amount of additional reserves that added wind energy would require and found actual reserve requirements averaged less than half the already modest levels projected.
Wind integration is made even easier by the fact that its availability is predictable. It is also much less variable on a grid wide-level – particularly with many turbines across a large area – than it might seem to be based on the local weather conditions at any one location.
Other jurisdictions are proving that wind can be both a large and reliable part of the electricity mix. Iowa leads the U.S. in wind-generated electricity per capita, getting well above one-third of its power from this source. It has seen a more than 15-fold increase in wind power at the same time that grid reliability improved by 15 per cent. Iowa, in fact, is known as the most reliable grid in the United States and has very competitive energy costs.
And it’s not alone among American jurisdictions in demonstrating the compatibility of more wind energy and improved reliability. Texas, South Dakota and Idaho are also wind energy leaders. U.S. studies have concluded that much higher-than-current levels of renewables could be reliably integrated into grids.
Several European countries meanwhile get a fifth or more of their electricity from wind, with Denmark closer to half. Along with Ireland, Spain and the Netherlands, Denmark has also improved the reliability of an already very efficiently operated grid at the same time as it increased its wind usage.
Canada is endowed with exceptional wind resources, which are largely untapped – wind energy met approximately six per cent of Canada’s electricity demand in 2017. It’s clear that tapping into these resources is a huge opportunity and wind energy can be readily and reliably integrated into the grid at levels much higher than what is installed in Canada today.
- Wind facts – Reliable Power
- Canada can integrate large amounts of wind energy reliably, cost-effectively, says report
 Wind Energy Helps Build a More Reliable and Balanced Energy Portfolio; American Wind Energy Association; 2015. Page 17 (of PDF document).
 Electricity Markets, Reliability and the Evolving U.S. Power System; Analysis Group; June 2017. Page 53.
 Wind Energy Helps Build a More Reliable and Balanced Energy Portfolio; American Wind Energy Association; 2015. Page 33 (of PDF document).
President of the Canadian Wind Energy Association