Every so often, an item stands out among the daily news cycle as if to shout, “Pay attention. This is important.” No, I’m not talking about a project win or even a construction update. I’m referring to last month’s announcement by the Southwest Power Pool (SPP) that wind energy had surpassed 50% wind penetration – measured by the amount of total load served by wind at a given time.
On Feb. 12 at 4:30 a.m., wind served 52.1% of the regional transmission operator’s (RTO) load, marking the first time in recorded history that any North American operator served 50% of the load with wind.
Let that stat sink in for a moment. Wind energy was the primary “fuel” serving the public’s energy needs. Veteran industry watchers will recall that 10 years ago, attaining even 25% wind penetration was considered crazy. But 50%? That’s truly mind-blowing.
“This is amazing,” notes Paul Zackin, president at Zackin Publications, which publishes North American Windpower. “When we first started NAW [in 2004], many were sure that the sky would fall when wind reached 10 percent. Where there is a will, there is a way.”
SPP says the record numbers were made possible because of its geographic diversity and robust transmission system. The RTO’s footprint covers more than 550,000 square miles, from the Canadian border in Montana and North Dakota in the north, to parts of New Mexico, Texas and Louisiana to the south.[adleft zone=’190′]
The RTO notes that the proliferation of wind power in the SPP region has grown significantly over the last decade. As recently as the early 2000s, SPP’s generating fleet included less than 400 MW of wind, and for years, wind was reported in the “other” category in SPP’s fuel mix data. Now, wind is the third most prevalent fuel source in the SPP region: It made up approximately 15% of the organization’s generating capacity in 2016 (behind only natural gas and coal).
SPP says it has approved the construction of more than $10 billion in high-voltage transmission infrastructure over the last decade. Much of it has been built in the Midwest to connect rural, isolated wind farms to population centers hundreds of miles away.
Perhaps more impressive is this: “It’s not even our ceiling,” notes Bruce Rew, SPP’s director of operations. “We continue to study even higher levels of renewable, variable generation as part of our plans to maintain a reliable and economic grid of the future.”
Again, where there is a will, there is a way.