Contrary to the claims of a few media outlets that there is “a serious problem” with low wind energy production in California and other Western states during the first months of 2015, wind levels during this time were not outside of normal variations.
It is not news that wind will naturally vary day to day and seasonally. Grid operators are well-prepared to reliably integrate wind energy, as they accommodate other sources of variability, especially with advances in forecasting. Recent new stories noting that wind production in the first quarter (Q1) of 2015 was lower than 2014, should not be used to suggest that this is any sort of trend. As shown in the chart below, this change was not outside of normal variability:
California monthly wind generation from January 2012 to February 2015. Source: EIA
For example, production in Q4 of 2014 was actually 30 percent above the same quarter in 2013. Total production in 2014 was actually 7 percent above 2013 production, according to the same EIA data (the net increase in 2014 wind generating capacity was just 1.4 percent above 2013 capacity levels, according to AWEA’s database.) Connecting Q1 production with California’s drought is even less supportable as the drought extends back to 2012. Indeed, weather forecasting firm Vaisala told Reuters that the weather pattern observed in Q1 2015 “is nothing unusual or outside of the range of the expected.”
This amount of natural variance is routinely anticipated in utility power purchase agreements. These contracts typically allow for a rolling-annual production range of between 70 percent and 120 percent of average. Even if Q1-2015 production levels were to persist proportionately throughout the year, they would be within this expected range. And, as averages work, we can expect above-average production in other quarters (as we saw in Q4-2014) to offset the below-average production in Q1.
California’s grid operator and grid operators around the country are well-equipped to handle this variability, using the same tools that grid operators use to accommodate sudden failures at conventional power plants, as well as constant fluctuations in electricity demand. Moreover, wind’s variability from one year to the next (as opposed to variability during the span of one day or month) is much lower than that of conventional hydro resources, and the Pacific Northwest has been able to reliably run a power system using mostly hydro for over a century. Wind’s lower inter-annual variability nicely complements hydro’s higher inter-annual variability, while hydro’s low daily-to-monthly variability (from the use of reservoirs) can help compensate for wind’s variability over that time frame.
Finally, wind energy’s variability has no bearing on its ability to offset the carbon emissions and other pollutants from fossil fuel generation.. Just as varying production will average out to an expected overall level, so will wind energy production deliver expected reductions in pollutants over time.
Focusing on one cherry-picked data point distracts from the fact that wind energy continues to deliver huge benefits to California, including saving water during the drought.