Heat Wave Demonstrates Limitations to Wind Power

The Pacific Northwest just finished four days of triple digit temperatures, which put the heat on renewable energy sources to keep up with demand. Just as records were being set for power consumption, wind power generation slowed due to the calm air from the locked-in high pressure system.

The extreme weather highlights the reality that wind — and to a lesser extent hydropower — may not be a panacea for power production.

Southern Washington and the Portland metro area had a record breaking streak of warmth that pushed energy demand to record highs, but the high pressure system also featured calm breezes. The local utility Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) had to quickly balance the reduction in wind power with increases in hydropower.

To make matters worse, during long hot and dry spells the water levels in the rivers that produce power can also drop, further reducing the ability for renewables to meet peak demand.

Granted, this is an extreme example of both weather and a utility that has a strong (and growing stronger) portfolio of renewable power. Despite the Northwest’s infamous frequent cloud cover, BPA might consider installing concentrated solar farms on the sunnier (east) side of the Cascades if it wants to avoid adding more fossil fuel production.

BPA has been dealing with wild fluctuations in wind for some time, as reported by the Seattle Post Intelligencer. The utility has been making wind power producers pay for its cost in balancing wind with other resources, and recently spiked fees by “only” 90 percent after considering quadrupling the cost.

Per the paper: “By 2011, the agency estimates the system will run out of the capacity to adjust enough to accommodate for the variations of wind power. As a result, the BPA, a nonprofit federal power-marketing agency, is accelerating plans for change, including: building more capacity, flexibility and quicker response times; implementing better forecasting tools; and sharing the responsibility for moving power within and outside the region.”

While wind is approaching grid parity for cost, it can’t be equally dispatchable without energy storage or being augmenting by other more manageable resource. This reality check shouldn’t detract from wind investments; it merely suggests a more balanced approach for utilities.

This article originally appeared on Matter Network.

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3 comments on “Heat Wave Demonstrates Limitations to Wind Power

What do you mean by concentrated solar farms east of the Cascades?

I don’t think CSP or even CPV are good technology choices here.


Regular PV (PhotoVoltaics) is a way to go.

There are many companies and several universities going after harvesting high altitude wind power with airborne machines because the winds that are above the boundary layer where today’s ground based turbines operate in general become increasingly stronger with increasing altitude and also increasingly more persistent. This could result in significantly higher capacity factors of 50% to 83% or in the Northwest. The beauty is that the jet stream doesn’t stop even when winds on the ground are completely calm.


The greater challenge facing our energy grid is actually more one of energy storage than energy production.

Sadly, the “best” storage that we currently have in the US is essentially pump storage facilities such as the Bath County Pumped Storage Station in Virginia which Dominion Power pumps water between two lakes separated by some 1200 vertical feet with excess power at night so they can use the facility for hydropower during the day.

The fluctuations of solar, tidal, and wind power wouldn’t be of such concern if we had a large scale distributed storage system.


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