New Analysis Finds Wasted Wind Energy, With Dirtier Forms of Energy Making Up the Difference

Economic and Environmental Benefits to Fixing the Problem

Published Nov 16, 2021

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WASHINGTON (November 16, 2021)—Wind is an abundant, clean, reliable, and low-cost source of electricity that we must continue developing to help address the climate crisis. Yet grid operators, who are responsible for balancing energy supply with demand, are forced to reduce the output from wind turbines and allow dirtier forms of energy like coal to make up the difference. A new fact sheet by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), “Why Does Wind Energy Get Wasted?” explores the main causes of wind curtailment, which include insufficient transmission capacity, inflexible operation of coal-fired power plants, and a lack of storage. Understanding the causes and solutions for wind curtailment is essential for accelerating the transition to a cleaner, more affordable power system.

UCS commissioned analysis from Synapse Energy Economics to investigate wind curtailment in the Southwest Power Pool (SPP), a regional grid spanning from North Dakota to parts of Texas. The data is clear—there were no instances where wind energy supply could have exceeded demand. In fact, in all hours where wind was curtailed, other higher-cost, more-polluting resources were still online.

“Saying that wind curtailment happens due to ‘wind oversupply’ creates misunderstanding around the actual problem,” says Joe Daniel, author of the fact sheet and manager of electricity markets at UCS. “It suggests that there is already too much wind energy on our energy grid when the opposite is true. We need more wind energy if we are to reduce emissions and fight climate change, which means we must also address the shortcomings in our system that cause it to be wasted.”

Fixing the constraints that lead to curtailment could save customers tens of millions of dollars in electricity costs and reduce carbon pollution by millions of tons a year. Solutions include new transmission investments; operating coal more flexibly; and expanding energy storage projects.

“We could be avoiding significant amounts of wind curtailment,” said Daniel, “by building more transmission to more effectively move renewable energy across the grid, by turning coal plants down or off so that renewables can get from the grid to the load, and by building storage to soak up any remaining renewable energy that cannot be used or exported. When wind is available, burning coal is always more expensive, so why waste wind?”

To learn more about wind curtailment, see Daniel’s blog post “Mythbusting ‘Wind Oversupply.’