During a recent trip to Maine, my wife and I noticed the large number of wind turbines cluttering the peaks of the ridges around the otherwise scenic New England countryside, particularly in Vermont. There really are a lot of them, and that’s the result of an ongoing push to get the region onto renewable energy as much as possible. Vermont in particular has been hammering wind power as the path to cut carbon emissions and make the state truly green in nature. And they’ve achieved an admirable level of success, despite the fact that people living near the wind farms are being driven batty by all the noise and the state is being forced to enact additional restrictions on turbine operation.

But for the most part, as I said, that was all well and good… at least as long as the weather was pleasant. Now, however, as I’m sure any of you living in the northeast are aware, there’s a blistering bubble of arctic air throwing the region into a deep freeze. Suddenly the power grid is experiencing strains which aren’t generally seen in more clement weather conditions. So how are they responding? Local Hartford, Vermont blogger Meredith Angwin has been keeping an eye on the grid and she’s seeing an alarming trend (or at least alarming to environmentalists). As the temperature dropped, wind energy production waned just as demand was rising. And the local power companies responded by… burning oil.

During cold snaps, gas pipelines must supply homes first, and gas-fired power plants get short-changed. ISO-NE has a Winter Reliability Program which mainly compensates gas-fired power plants for keeping fuel on site: oil or LNG or CNG. (Liquefied or compressed natural gas.) The grid was running about 22% oil at 5:30 this evening.

The current Winter Reliability program is described in an update presentation, given December 7, 2017 by Anne George of ISO-NE. On page 5, Ms. George describes the current winter reliability program, which pays oil and gas fired generators to have fuel on site. (Page numbers are at the lower right of each viewgraph.) On page 18, she describes how the forward capacity auctions are attracting new generation, even as older plants retire. Specifically, ISO-NE is attracting new dual-fired natural gas resources: gas turbines that can also burn oil, and therefore can store oil on-site for cold weather.

In a follow-up post, Angwin records what happens to the grid as the temperature falls further. By the time it was down to one degree (!) the average cost of electricity on the grid had spiked from $200 per megawatt hour (Mwh) to over $300 / Mwh, with some areas reaching as high as $338. In addition to that, the percentage of energy on the grid coming from burning oil in dual-purpose plants (which can also use natural gas when it’s available) had jumped up to account for nearly one third of the total load.

As you can see, oil and nuclear account for nearly 60% of the power being consumed, while renewables are only managing to produce 7% during peak demand hours. And of that 7% renewable energy, the wind farms were only kicking in 13% of it. Fully 85% of the renewable energy was coming from burning wood or refuse. (See linked blog entry for graphics showing the breakdown of energy sources.)

So what does all this mean? I’m not saying we shouldn’t be using wind, solar and most anything else we can get our hands on when it’s practical to do so. But as we’ve been preaching here for years, what’s really required is an all of the above energy strategy which doesn’t fall victim to politics. That’s something that Rick Perry has been trying to get across since taking over as Secretary of Energy. Abandoning traditional energy sources in favor of politically popular but limited renewable options is foolish. Conditions change. Sometimes it’s cloudy. Sometimes the wind doesn’t blow. And sometimes it gets really, really cold. That’s why he’s been trying to ensure that we retain our ability to produce power using coal, oil and nuclear as needed. But this has resulted in withering criticism, primarily from Democrats. (Washington Examiner)

Most lawmakers asking questions at a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing seemed skeptical of Energy Secretary Rick Perry’s plan, expressing concern that it would undermine an “all of the above” energy landscape by favoring certain power sources over others.

“This is quite a misguided effort they need to put back to the shop,” said Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Fla. “Clearly [the Trump administration] are favoring fuel sources that are less competitive today. This will cost consumers dearly.”

Rather than carping about Perry’s energy plans, perhaps these critics should take a trip up to Vermont this weekend when the temperature is expected to hit negative 10 without the wind chill. Take a look at their power grid and then tell us how we need to all be converting to wind and solar. You’re putting people at serious risk if we cripple the power grid and we need to come to grips with that reality.