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

Wind industry leaders from GE, Enel, and Axis Capital discussed how the wind industry is adapting to more frequent extreme weather events.
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Uzair Memon can vividly remember when his phone started ringing off the hook.

It was Feb. 14, 2021. Memon and his wife were celebrating Valentine's Day when the chief commercial officer of digital services for GE Renewable Energy started fielding calls from concerned wind turbine owners and operators as an extreme winter storm started to bear down on Texas.

Over the next several days, millions of Texans would go without power as the electric grid nearly reached total collapse. And while gas supply failures were largely to blame for the outages, wind asset owners didn't escape the storm unscathed with 22% of wind assets experiencing unplanned outages.

Now two winters removed from Winter Storm Uri, how is the wind industry adapting to more frequent extreme weather events that are fueled by climate change?

Memon joined Jonathan Gray of renewable energy developer Enel and Bryce Aquino of the risk management firm Axis Capital for the RENEWABLE+ Series virtual event "Texas takeaways: Improving weather resilience in wind power generation," which is now available on-demand for free here.

"Ten years ago, if you were developing a wind project in Texas and you were thinking about putting a winterization package on there, people would think you're crazy," Memon said. "Versus now, those conversations are part of the discussion."

Those conversations are unique to each wind asset, Memon pointed out, and there's no one-size-fits-all solution to mitigate the effects of extreme weather events. Decisions must still be financially grounded, and turbines with cold weather packages and de-icing equipment can cost 5-10% more.

During Winter Storm Uri, GE, as a turbine manufacturer and operations and maintenance provider, was able to temporarily expand the temperature range for 3,000 turbines, generating 25 GWh for the ERCOT grid.

Memon added that manufacturers have a responsibility to educate asset owners on critical components inside their turbines and develop an extreme weather response plan.

"That was a learning (experience) for us. It was a quick scramble," Memon said. "One of the things we took out of it was, it needs to be a holistic approach when it comes to 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. It's more cost-effective, however, to invest in winterization measures in development rather than retrofitting existing wind turbines, according to Jonathan Gray, who covers public policy in Texas and Oklahoma for Enel.

Enel, a client of GE, was hard hit by Winter Storm Uri. While Enel's turbines are rated for low temperatures of 14°F to -22°F, freezing fog, ice, and snow conditions shut down the developer's wind assets.

Justification for the more costly cold weather package for a new wind asset underdevelopment became clearer for Enel after the storm, even for a project that may have not previously warranted the investment.

"That was a live exercise, right there. Seeing (Winter Storm Uri) happen and making that investment on the frontside is much easier to do than coming in on the backend and trying to retrofit," Gray said during the RENEWABLE+ Series event.

Transmission infrastructure, the panelists said, is equally important to wind energy's resilience in extreme weather events as the manufacturing of the wind turbines themselves.

Bryce Aquino, now the principal engineer for renewable energy assets for the risk management firm Axis Capital, was working as a project manager for renewable energy developer RWE during Winter Storm Uri. Utilities told wind generators, even ones that were able to operate, to change the power setpoint for wind assets to 0 MW because there was nowhere to transmit the power.

"Transmission lines and substations are the choke point of all of our generation," Aquino said. "Many of the areas we build in 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 come in the future, even if we are weatherized, if there is no transmission to export power to, we are still putting ourselves at risk."

Much of Gray and Enel's policy advocacy work centers around transmission buildout. He called the Texas legislative session that came after Winter Storm Uri a "missed opportunity" to pass a meaningful transmission policy.

House Bill 1607 would have helped expedite critical transmission infrastructure buildout and upgrades but failed to pass. Meanwhile, the Texas Public Utilities Commission is in the midst of a market redesign that could levy reliability costs on variable renewable sources.

Tying ERCOT to the Eastern Interconnect would also maximize Texas wind assets and improve reliability, Gray said.

"Transmission is a key feature of resiliency," Gray said. "Whenever you have a state as large as Texas with a grid on an island, transmission is key in order to get wind power from rural areas to load. Ensuring that Texas is making investments for that build-out, that's going to be key in order to respond to future weather disruptive events."

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