Texas has been hit by a wave of freezing temperatures that caused major power outages for millions across the state. Around half of wind turbines in the state stopped generating electricity, which caused doubts about the effectiveness of renewable energy. However, wind turbines are operating in frigid places like Antarctica, Norway, the North Sea, and Sweden. How are these turbines able to operate, but those in Texas are not?
Wind turbines are adaptable for probable risks, including freezing temperatures
Depending on the environmental conditions of where the wind turbines are located, they go through a risk analysis to understand the operating conditions they can handle and equip the turbines to meet those conditions. For some turbines, the minimum operating temperature is 32°F (0°C), and for some, it’s -22°F (-30°C).
In places like Antarctica, owners/operators of wind turbines will opt into “weatherizing” their turbines to be able to withstand the cold conditions. This includes using materials and electronics rated for lower temperatures, installing heaters, and having de-icing tools easily accessible.
Add-ons to wind turbines add to the cost of the turbine. Texas is traditionally not a frigid environment, so it may not have seemed worth the investment to equip their turbines for the cold. It’s apparent now that the risk of not investing in these add-ons may have outweighed the benefits of having them.
The impact of inoperable wind turbines
Texas relies on wind energy for 20-25% of it's annual energy production. An average 2.5-3 MW onshore wind turbine can generate up to 6 million kWh per year (powering about 1,500 homes). Considering the average price for electricity in Texas was 11.67 cents per kWh in 2019, this means that each turbine can generate around $700k per year or $1,900 per day. For the nearly 7,500 turbines impacted, that is up to $14.3 million lost per day. Every day a turbine is down leads to less available energy, more concerns from the public, and lost revenue for the turbine owner.
The impact of the halted wind turbines in Texas during this cold wave was only 13% of the power outages, which is lower than the 25% of power that comes from wind in the state. This means wind energy was actually more suited for the cold than other energy sources. A larger culprit of the power outages was due to frozen infrastructure at gas and coal power stations.
However, with each passing day of wind turbines being inoperable, the value of weatherizing the turbines becomes more clear.
Add-ons truly show their benefits when needed the most
The true benefit of equipping wind turbine with additional protection or performance options is seen after potentially devastating events are prevented. This includes weatherizing turbines for inclement weather or adding a fire suppression system to protect a turbine from becoming a total loss.
If all wind turbines in Texas were weatherized, then the conversation would be about how wind turbines are a reliable source of energy even in the face of cold temperatures.
What this means for the future of wind
Many industries are reactive, rather than proactive, to large-scale events like this. Weatherizing wind turbines will be more strongly looked at after the recent cold wave in Texas and other climate change related events. These expensive outages will be fresh in the minds of wind turbine purchasers, insurers, and engineers so there may be more mitigation efforts towards these outages in the future.
It’s clear that wind turbine add-ons can provide a positive return on investment, even if turbine owners may think “that wouldn’t happen to me.” Had cold-weather packages been installed before this cold wave, then owners could save the approximately $14 million+ per day in lost production.
Moving forward, rising and lowering temperatures of wind turbines sites will be more thoroughly investigated as other regions of the world prevent running into the same issues as Texas. Planning and maintenance will also be a factor in optimizing performance of wind turbines.