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Wind’s Getting Better

Continual improvement is critical for future needs

By Rob Gramlich

Wind energy has come a long way. As documented in the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) recent Wind Vision report, wind technology has improved in cost, reliability services, forecasting, and wildlife impact mitigation, to name a few areas. The cost reductions have been the most dramatic, in excess of a 66% decline over the last six years, 48% ahead of the aggressive cost-reduction pathway envisioned in the DOE’s 2008 report, “20% Wind Energy by 2030.” In a virtuous circle, greater deployment has driven technological improvements, more domestic manufacturing, and economies of scale that reduce costs, in turn driving further deployment, and so on. We are learning by doing, and there is a lot of improvement yet to come.

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with five members of the Emerging Leaders Program of the American Wind Energy Association. These young engineers described how they have created new processes in their companies to reduce turbine costs. One such idea involved putting colored stickers on turbine parts to direct delivery to the appropriate location. High tech? No. Creative and effective? Absolutely. All of them had more ideas for improvement than they had time to implement, and their senior managers said the same thing. The Wind Vision report envisions significant continual improvement in wind energy’s productivity and cost.

Progress on grid integration has also been dramatic. As each biennial review of wind and solar integration demonstrates, we are learning more about how to integrate variable resources. Grid operators in Texas and the Midwest now fully incorporate wind plants into their power system dispatch, and thanks to their efficient grid operations, each has found the impact of more than 10,000 MW of wind on their need for operating reserves to be little to none. The mean absolute error for Xcel’s Colorado wind forecasts declined nearly 40% from 2009 to 2013. During some hours, Xcel now uses its wind plants’ fast active power control to meet a significant share of the system’s need for dispatchable power, enabling wind, at times, to provide over 60% of total generation. Thanks to their sophisticated power electronics, wind turbines are now capable of providing grid reliability services as well as or better than conventional power plants.

With states and utilities set to reduce carbon pollution under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan, this improvement couldn’t have come at a better time. As Energy Secretary Moniz said at WINDPOWER 2015, “We believe very much the central role of wind in meeting our climate challenges, and we’re very committed in this direction.” Wind is ready to meet that role. The Energy Information Administration recently released a report showing that wind energy consistently emerged as the lowest-cost option for reducing carbon emissions across a range of scenarios, with more than 100 GW of additional wind over the next ten years providing more than half of the optimal compliance mix for the Clean Power Plan. The U.S. power sector is the largest source of carbon emissions in the country (a country that emits among the most in the world), and greater use of wind energy is some of the lowest-hanging fruit for reducing emissions. Whatever power source can support reliability and low rates will be needed in spades, and wind energy is ready to serve that need.

Continual improvement in cost and performance is critical for utilities, their end-use customers, and the wind industry’s survival. The Clean Power Plan and other ways to address carbon will take a number of years to be fully binding on the industry. It is not clear if targeted incentives, like the renewable energy production tax credit (PTC), will be around over the long term. There is a strong case to be made that they should, but the wind industry cannot depend on the U.S. Congress to come through every year or two. Achieving full-grid parity and competing successfully on a level playing field needs to be the industry’s goal.

In the long term, it is inevitable that carbon constraints will lead utilities to wind energy. The challenge is finding a path from here to there. Policies like the PTC still provide an essential driver for industry to continue its work in improving performance and cost. Policy instability could force domestic wind manufacturers to pack up shop, as many did in 2013 after the last PTC expired, sacrificing the cost reductions and economies of scale that we’ve worked so hard to achieve. To avoid the uncertainty and disruption that occurs with one-year extensions, Congress should extend the PTC for five years, providing the wind industry with a path to the 2020s, when carbon regulations are scheduled to begin.

As readers of IEEE Power & Energy Magazine know, our transmission system still needs major upgrades. The good news is that annual transmission investment is at record levels due to the good work of regional transmission planners, particularly in the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the Southwest Power Pool, and the Midcontinent Independent System Operator. The bad news is that some people think the job is done. States and utilities will need to put together their Clean Power Plan compliance plans and work with regional grid operators to plan and pay for lines that will deliver the resources needed for cost-effective compliance. In the next phase of transmission ­expansion, interregional lines will likely be critical. That will be a significant challenge for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), regional transmission organizations, and utilities in much of the country. By no means is this too hard, as FERC’s Order 1000 provides the needed policy framework. This inevitable need for more transmission is just one aspect of the continual improvement that will get the power sector to the clean, reliable, and low-cost place it needs to be.