March 30, 2024

Northwest Wind Energy Generation Collapses Again: Can We Blame El Nino?

 The latest Northwest energy generation statistics are available from the Bonneville Power Administration and they are sobering:   wind energy generation (green line) has collapsed over the past several days (see below).   Spring is normally a time when wind generation increases robustly, but not this year.

What is going on?

Something happened between March 25th and March 27th.  But what?

Winds are driven by pressure differences, so let's examine the changes in the regional pressure fields.

At 5 PM on March 25th, there was high pressure offshore and low pressure over eastern Washington, resulting in westerly (from he west) flow descending into eastern Washington (see pressure map below).  Good for wind energy generation.

A look at the winds at 5 PM on March 25th (below, with gusts in red), shows substantial winds (greater than 20 knots) over many of the prime wind-generation areas of eastern Washington and Oregon.

But the pressure situation on the 27th at 5 PM is radically different, with a strong low offshore (see below).

This greatly weakens the pressure difference across the Cascades and thus the winds.  To see this explicitly, here are the regional winds at 5 PM on the 27th.  Can you see the difference?

A plot of the sustained windspeed and gusts at Ellensburg Airport further illustrates the situation (below)

We have repeatedly been in a situation with a low-pressure area offshore this winter.   As noted in my previous blogs, this is a classic situation during El Nino years, something shown by a composite analysis of pressure differences from normal during El Nino years (see below, from a NOAA website).   The blue colors indicate enhanced low pressure offshore.

For those hoping for wind energy to lead the way to independence from other energy sources, this situation is a warning.  Wind energy alone can not fill the gap: it is too variable, both by season and by weather regime.  

This situation is particularly concerning considering the rapid rise in electricity usage, driven by increasing numbers of electric cars, massive new computational centers, and the push by many governmental groups and others to reduce the use of natural gas for heating and cooking.

The problems with wind generation make the consideration of nuclear energy critical for any serious reduction in fossil fuel use.


  1. Yes, let's build hundreds of gigantic windmills.. an unreliable, low-output energy source that puts a hideous blight on the land to boot. This is how people think.

  2. Cliff I am interested in knowing the 'quality' of the wind in the offshore areas that BOEM and the windfarm developers are proposing for the establishment of offshore wind platforms, off of CA, OR and perhaps off Grays Harbor County here in WA State. Do you think a similar situation might occur offshore out on the ocean as you point out due to El Nino on land-based wind farms in WA?

  3. Which data are you looking at that show a "rapid rise in electricity usage"? Total usage appears flat since about 2006 in data from the US Energy Information Administration. This is quite impressive when considering increased population an economic output. I believe this may be thanks to large improvements in energy efficiency. The same data show total usage per GDP decreasing by more than half between 1997 and 2021.

  4. Cliff, you're correct that wind turbines don't produce power when the wind doesn't blow, and that we can't depend solely on wind power. I have never heard anyone say otherwise. However when the wind does blow, which is most of the time, it is a cheap and clean source of power that reduces monthly rates for consumers. Why not include it in a diversified energy grid? Washington certainly doesn't over-rely on it (we aren't even in the top ten in terms of percentage of electricity from wind).

  5. The BPA calls the line for Nuclear "Cobalt" which has been steady all week.
    Washington needs to start building one a year, especially if all the Puget Sounders buy EVs.
    Permitting and legal challenges could be finished in the mid-2030s with first one going on-line in about 2045.

    A solar facility in Texas recently experienced large hail.
    Fighting Jays Solar Farm coordinates:
    30.7078355, -96.070432

  6. Tragically, to the fossil fuel rejection ideologues, these facts won't matter.

  7. I heard recently that Bitcoin/Blockchain takes 2-2.5 percent of our electricity generation to produce because massive computing power is called for. If true, this is an outrageous waste that should be outlawed in this time of energy reckoning. Making funny money for financial speculators is an irresponsible and completely useless industry, which produces no real value.

  8. The Northwest Power Planning Council's current plan calls for adding 3000 megawatts nameplate of wind and solar capacity backed by battery storage to the regional power supply. Any shortfalls in meeting future demand beyond 3000 Mw will be handled by energy conservation measures.

    However, the NWPPC doesn't say how many megawatt-hours of electricity that additional 3000 megawatts nameplate will be expected to deliver. Nor does the NWPPC state what the expected overall capacity factor should be in order to produce some desired number of megawatt-hours.

    Suppose we were to compare the generating performance of: (1) a centrally-located 3000 Mw nameplate wind/solar/battery farm with (2) a centrally-located 3000 Mw nameplate nuclear reactor complex. Each of these notional energy generation systems would be installed in the drylands of central Washington State. Each energy option would have an annual capacity factor approaching 90%.

    This graphic, which I produced from online data resources supplied by the BPA, shows the capacity factors for wind, solar, and nuclear within the BPA's area of load balancing authority for the 26-month period of January 2022 through February 2024:

    BPA Wind, Solar, and Nuclear Daily Capacity Factors: 01/22 through 02/24

    As can be seen on the graphic:

    -- Wind's overall capacity factor for the 26-month period is 24.4%. The megawatt-hours produced by wind farms vary considerably from day to day and from week to week throughout the four seasons.
    -- Periods of very low wind occur throughout all four seasons, but are most prominent in the winter season. Such low wind periods can last as long as six days where wind generation is near zero.
    -- Solar's overall capacity factor for the 26-month period is 24.2%. The megawatt-hours produced by solar farms vary from day to day and from week to week throughout the four seasons. However, the daily/weekly variations are less pronounced than are wind's variations.
    -- Solar's daily capacity factors rise steadily from spring into summer as the days get longer, and then decrease steadily from fall into winter as the days get shorter.
    -- In the winter months, extended periods of low or no wind generation occur simultaneously with the low solar generation capacity which is normal for the winter months.
    -- Nuclear's overall capacity factor for the 26-month period is 87.5 percent. For much of the year, nuclear's capacity factor on any given day remains close to 95%.
    -- The overall capacity factor of 87.5% for nuclear is a consequence of the six-week maintenance and refueling outage performed at the Columbia Generating station in May and June of every other year.

    The option of building a centrally-located nuclear complex would involve constructing two AP1000 size reactors (1200 megawatts each for a total of 2400 Mw nameplate) plus two six-module NuScale SMR facilities for a total of 962 Mw nameplate. The two AP1000s would handle baseload and the 12 NuScale SMR modules would handle load-following and peaker generation requirements. Reaching a specified capacity factor of 90% is straight-forwardly accomplished with nuclear.

    On the other hand, reaching a capacity factor approaching 90% for a wind-solar-battery energy complex would require a wind & solar overbuild of between four and five times for a total nameplate capacity of between 12,000 and 15,000 megawatts depending upon how the complex is to be engineered. In addition, battery storage would be necessary which is capable of delivering roughly 1500 to 2000 Mw output continuously for periods lasting as long as six days.

    What would each option cost in terms of initial capital cost? What would the total lifecycle cost be for each option? These are questions for another day as I get time to address them.


Please make sure your comments are civil. Name calling and personal attacks are not appropriate.

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