Is it time for wind power to step up?

The outburst of cold weather during the first few days of January was the result of a meteorological anomaly which happened to occur on the same days for two years in a row. The polar vortex which occurred on January 6 and 7 in 2014 struck again with full force on those same dates this year, and the cold weather proved to reinforce a point made by a surprising beneficiary.

According to the American Wind Energy Association, which advocates for wind power as an alternative source of energy, consumers saved $1 billion in the 2014 polar vortex thanks to the availability of wind power. As they note:

Wind energy does this by protecting against spikes in the price of other fuels in the Mid-Atlantic and Great Lakes states. While other power plants failed in last January’s extreme cold or faced skyrocketing prices for fuel, wind energy continued producing electricity with zero fuel cost, not only keeping the lights on but also keeping money in consumers’ pockets.

With extreme cold now gripping much of the Eastern U.S., wind energy is once again helping to keep the lights on and protecting consumers against energy price spikes by diversifying the nation’s electricity mix. This is a repeat of the value wind energy provided to consumers during the “Polar Vortex” event exactly one year ago (Wednesday.)

Further, I also learned that the amount of electrical power created by wind reached an all-time high in two regions of the country overnight Tuesday night. Yes, it was blowing hard the other day so wind turbines were at their maximum effect and production.

In the last 24 hours wind set a new output record for the MidContinent ISO (MISO) and for the Southwest Power Pool (SPP), an area that covers much of the Midwest. Wind also performed at near-record levels in the PJM market (PJM).

Overnight on January 6-7, the MISO experienced a record 11,725 MW of wind production while the SPP region added another 7,625 MW – between the two, they powered 15 million homes. AWEA also claimed “near-record” production in the PJM area, which includes our region. In some areas, wind power was a far more significant provider during the event than its overall 4 percent share of the market.

Yet while wind power has made some significant achievements, no story is complete without pointing out a couple of realities: wind energy is not as reliable as fossil fuels, and its distribution pattern in this country makes it a tenuous backup plan for some regions, such as the southeastern part of the country. Negligible wind energy production exists there because of unfavorable conditions.

The reason wind power was so useful in this instance of cold weather was that natural gas has to serve two masters when it’s cold: electricity generation which occurs all year and home heating for the winter. With the difficulty in building the infrastructure needed to move our abundant supply of natural gas to markets in some areas of the country, the spot price surged. AWEA’s $1 billion assertion was based on that price spike for natural gas.

Because of the fickle nature of wind power, it’s interesting to note that PJM keeps a constant eye on the output of its wind turbines and their predicted effects. As of the moment I write this, the wind turbines are producing 4,424 megawatts, which is slightly below the 4,585 megawatts forecast. To meet needs other sources will have to come into play if they’re not already accounted for.

The economics of wind are fickle as well. While the on-again, off-again nature of the Wind Production Tax Credit of 2.3 cents per kilowatt-hour produced has affected the building of turbines – opponents consider them a handout both to the industry and Wall Street – state government mandates for clean energy prop up the demand. Without the prescribed mandates from states like Maryland, which has a current goal of 10% of its energy source generation from wind and other renewables, it’s likely the wind energy industry would be non-existent in America.

But its legitimacy was bolstered from a surprising source this week. Each year, the American Petroleum Institute puts out a State of American Energy Report, and for the first time it addressed a number of alternative energy sources including wind power. As Jack Gerard of API puts it:

Rather than focus solely on the oil and natural gas industry, API this year is pleased to partner with organizations representing various energy sectors to highlight the contributions of each toward America’s current and future economic wellbeing, and collectively stress the importance of adopting a lasting “all of the above” energy strategy.

In their section of the API report, AWEA notes that potentially 35 percent of America’s electricity could be created from wind power by 2050. Of course, there are questions about the health risks of living near a wind turbine which will merit further study, but it is relatively convenient that most of the best places for wind production are in sparsely-populated areas.

If you subscribe to the “all of the above” energy strategy, you may be setting a place at the table for wind energy. Certainly it won’t serve all of our needs as well as the versatile roster of fossil fuels has over the years, and it may have to navigate a brave new world without the tax credits that have built the industry up over the last two decades – in fact, I think it should. Logic would dictate that, since the fuel is free of charge, the only cost should be the infrastructure, transmission, and occasional maintenance and monitoring, so who needs a tax break?

We won’t always have a polar vortex, but if the wind energy industry is where its backers say it is, we won’t need one to make wind a good choice. Let’s put it on a level playing field and see how it fares.