Renewables Easier to Manage Than Expected for Grid Operators

Wind turbines dominate the landscape -- and the grid -- in Texas | Photo: fieldsbh/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Fossil fuel interests routinely criticize renewable energy as being too unpredictable to meet the demands of a large power grid. But as it turns out, even a resource as unpredictable as wind power -- which can fluctuate statewide by hundreds of megawatts in the course of an hour or two -- isn't that hard to incorporate into a grid the size of California's.

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Opponents of renewable energy have long capitalized on fears over intermittency, saying that grid managers like California's Independent System Operator (CaISO) will have to resort to expensive measures to integrate fluctuating renewable power sources like solar and wind, making the overall grid more fragile. But according to a recent piece by Herman Trabish in Greentech Media, such fears are -- to risk a wind-related pun -- overblown.

According to Trabish, the total cost of integrating wind power into the grid operated by The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), the Lone Star State's equivalent of CaISO, run around fifty cents per megawatt hour. And that's in a state with ten gigawatts of wind generating capacity, almost twice California's.

The key is to take advantage of new ways to monitor and predict weather a few days -- or a few hours -- in advance, so that grid operators can anticipate the wind dying down, or a cloud passing over a solar facility.

That's got to be bad news for fossil fuel friendly groups like the Koch Brothers-backed American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which has attacked renewables development to the point where solar and wind trade groups are dropping their ALEC memberships. Grid fragility due to intermittency is a key criticism ALEC's made of renewables development, but sadly for ALEC, and happily for renewables backers, that fragility seems to be a non-issue.

That ease with which renewables can be incorporated into the grid offers some good news even for those who have concerns over the environmental and social impacts of Big Renewables. The easier it is to make the grid flexible, the easier it will be to manage renewable development that doesn't cram thousands of turbines into raptor migration corridors so that their power output can be aggregated. Having thousands of individual farm families own their own turbine or two, rather than designating wind sacrifice areas across California, might ease both the environmental and quality-of-life downsides to wind power development, and a more responsive grid could make that possible.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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