How the wind industry is adapting to climate-fueled extreme weather

Enel’s High Lonesome Wind Project, West Texas. The Enel 500 MW wind farm in West Texas is the largest in its global portfolio. (Courtesy: Enel)

Uzair Memon clearly remembers the moment his phone rang.

It was February 14, 2021. Memon and his spouse were celebrating Valentine’s Day. However, GE Renewable Energy’s chief commercial officer for digital services began fielding calls from wind turbine owners and operators concerned about the severe winter storm that was sweeping through Texas.

Over the next few days millions of Texans were without power as the electric grid was close to total collapse. The outages were mostly caused by gas supply issues, but wind asset owners weren’t spared. 22% of wind assets experienced unplanned outages.

Two winters have passed since Winter Storm Uri. How can the wind industry adapt to more extreme weather events that are fueled primarily by climate change?

Memon was joined by Jonathan Gray, a renewable energy developer Enel, and Bryce Aquino, a risk management firm Axis Capital, for the RENEWABLE+ Series virtual “Texas takeaways” event “Improving weather resilience in wind generation,” which is now online On-demand here.

Memon stated that ten years ago, if someone was developing a wind farm in Texas and they thought about putting a winterization program on it, people would think you were crazy. “Versus now those conversations are part the discussion.”

Memon said that each wind asset has its own conversations and that there is no single solution to mitigate the impacts of extreme weather events. Decisions must be financially sound. Turbines equipped with deicing equipment and cold weather packages may cost 5-10% less.

GE, a turbine manufacturer as well as operations and maintenance provider, was able temporary to increase the temperature range for 3,000 turbines. This resulted in 25 GWh of electricity for the ERCOT grid.

Memon said that manufacturers are responsible for informing asset owners about the critical components of their turbines, and creating an emergency response plan.

“That was an experience that we learned from. It was a quick scramble,” Memon explained. “We took out one thing from it: it needs to be an holistic approach when it is winter preparedness.”

Since the storm, GE has upgraded 2,000 turbines with cold weather packages to improve their ratings from 5°F to -22°F. Jonathan Gray, Enel’s Texas and Oklahoma public policy reporter, says it is more cost-effective to invest in winterization measures during development than retrofitting existing turbines.

Enel, a client by GE, was severely affected by Winter Storm Uri. While Enel’s turbines are rated for low temperatures of 14°F to -22°F, The developer’s wind assets were shut down due to freezing fog, ice and snow conditions.

Enel’s justification for the more expensive cold weather package to underdevelop a new wind asset became clearer after the storm, even though the project may not have been financially feasible.

“That was a live exercise. Gray stated that it was much easier to see (Winter Storm Uri), and make that investment on the frontside than to come in on the backend and retrofit,” Gray said at the RENEWABLE+ Series event.

Panelists agreed that transmission infrastructure is as crucial to wind energy’s resilience against extreme weather events and manufacturing of wind turbines as it is to the production of the turbines themselves.

Bryce Aquino was the principal engineer of renewable energy assets for Axis Capital. He had been working as a project manger for RWE in the midst of Winter Storm Uri. Utilities instructed wind generators, even those that could operate, to reduce the power setpoint to 0MW because there was no way to transmit the power.

Aquino stated that transmission lines and substations are the chokepoint of all our generation. “Many of our areas have poor transmission systems. If we don’t invest in improving our infrastructure, a lot of what we are doing at the plant level is fruitless.

“In events like Uri, and those that will occur in the future, even though we are weatherized to some extent, if there are no transmissions to export power to, then we still put ourselves at risk.”

Gray and Enel focus a lot of their policy advocacy work on transmission buildout. He called the Texas legislative session following Winter Storm Uri a missed opportunity to pass a transmission policy.

House Bill 1607 would have accelerated critical transmission infrastructure upgrade and buildout, but it failed to pass. The Texas Public Utilities Commission, however, is currently in the midst a market remodel that could lead to reliability costs on variable renewable resources.

Gray stated that tying the ERCOT to Eastern Interconnect would increase Texas wind assets and reliability.

Gray stated, “Transmission is a key characteristic of resiliency.” “When you have a large state like Texas, with a grid on an Island, transmission is crucial in order to get wind energy from rural areas to load. In order to respond to future weather disruptions, it’s important that Texas makes investments in this build-out.