It wasn’t very windy this morning, and that’s a problem

It is a well-understood phenomenon that wind generation in the Midwest essentially disappears when the mercury dips below -22° F. Electricity generation from wind turbines drops under these circumstances because wind turbines are programmed to automatically shut off when the temperatures get this cold to prevent them from breaking.

Ironically, wind turbines are actually net consumers of power during these periods because they have electric heaters installed in the gearboxes to keep the oil inside the wind turbines from freezing.

Hourly data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration shows wind production plummeted yesterday as the temperatures dropped overnight. Falling wind output resulted in an increase in coal, natural gas, and oil generation.

The wind generation forecast from the regional grid operator, the Midcontinent Independent Systems Operator (MISO), shows that wind generation is expected to pick back up as temperatures rise throughout the afternoon, which you can see in the graph below.

In some ways, the wind fleet is becoming increasingly vulnerable to -22° F temperatures. This is because many Minnesota companies are building wind turbines in North Dakota, since it’s windier in the Peace Garden States. However, North Dakota also tends to get colder than Minnesota, which means the turbines are more likely to shut off due to low temperatures.

Low wind production during cold snaps is a problem because our electric grid is becoming increasingly reliant upon wind generation, as coal-fired power plants are shut down within the MISO footprint. As you can see in the first figure above, coal is currently providing more electricity to the grid than any other source.

Unfortunately, if Xcel Energy, Minnesota Power, and other utilities in the MISO footprint shut down their reliable, affordable coal plants, a “no-show” from wind turbines will increase the likelihood of rolling blackouts, as I discuss in my article Below Zero Blackouts? in the newest issue of Thinking Minnesota.

Hopefully, Minnesota utility regulators and electric companies come to their senses before that happens.