A Blackout, Big Oil, and Wind Energy

During the first quarter of 2017, workers installed a wind turbine somewhere in the US every 2.4 hours. Wind provided 5.6% of all the electricity produced in the US in 2016. That’s more than double the amount of wind power in 2010. The whole world is seeing similar growth.  The wind industry isn’t without controversy. Critics blame it for the scope of a blackout in Australia. On the other hand, international oil companies have begun to build off-shore wind farms.

Critics’ case against wind energy

According to its critics, wind power is unreliable. The wind doesn’t blow all the time. It doesn’t blow on any predictable pattern. Wind turbines require some minimum wind speed for them to work at all. And if the wind is too strong, they can’t operate safely and must shut down.

Wind can cross one or the other of these thresholds multiple times a day. They operate at full capacity for only a few hours a year. So the theoretical capacity of a wind farm greatly exceeds its actual output.

The times turbines can generate electricity do not coincide with rising and falling demand for electricity. This variability creates problems for stabilizing the grid. Critics further claim that the wind industry can’t operate without massive government subsidies.

Wind power and South Australia blackout of 2016?

South Australia depends on wind energy for about 40% of its electricity. It suffered seven tornadoes on September 28, 2016. Two of them, with winds almost as fast as Hurricane Katrina, destroyed twenty towers that held three different transmission lines. Nine wind farms shut down.  Within minutes, the entire state suffered a massive blackout.

What contributed the most to the blackout? South Australia’s high dependence on wind power? The weather? Or something else?

Renewable energy skeptics quickly claimed the blackout justified their position. The wind farms simply failed to provide enough electricity in the emergency. Wind and solar energy, they say, are inherently unreliable. South Australia’s heavy reliance demonstrates an irresponsible policy based on ideology more than technological reality.

Certainly, the weather would have caused a disturbance in electrical service no matter what source of electricity. People near the downed transmission lines could not have avoided loss of power. But prompt action by grid operators makes it possible to bypass problem areas and limit the extent of the outage.

On closer examination, however, the correct answer to the multiple-choice question above is C: something else.

Wind turbines have “low voltage ride through” settings to keep operating for brief periods when voltage dips below the threshold at which they can operate correctly. If low-voltage conditions occur too frequently, the turbines have a protection mechanism that turns them off.

  • Ten wind farms experienced between three and six low-voltage events within two minutes. But the turbines were operating on factory settings. No one performed any testing to determine good settings under local conditions.
  • The agency that regulates the Australian electricity market knew nothing about the protection feature. It blamed the wind farms, but surely someone on staff should have been familiar with the default operation of the turbines. After all, the agency approved purchase and installation of the turbines. It had all the documentation.
  • Two gas generating plants that should have supplied backup power failed to come online.

The weather caused a problem that became a crisis not because of technical limitations of renewable energy, but because of too many different organizations’ incompetence.

If the wind is too strong, wind turbines can’t operate safely and must shut down.

One homeowner in South Australia didn’t suffer from the outage. He didn’t even know about the blackout till he saw it on the news. He had to test the accuracy of the news reports by opening his oven and noting that the light didn’t come on.

It turns out he had installed solar panels just a few weeks earlier. And since power outages in his part of South Australia occur almost every month, he decided to install a Tesla Powerwall as well.

He can’t use it to power his entire house, but it takes care of the lights and the television. It stores enough electricity for 10 hours of off-grid power.

Big oil and wind power

International oil companies have not joined the chorus of wind-industry skeptics. Several of them, including Royal Dutch Shell, have begun to invest heavily in off-shore wind farms. Especially in the North Sea. Oil production there has steadily declined for about 15 years.

Exploring for new oil fields has become too risky and expensive. These oil companies have decided that investing in wind energy helps their cash flow and makes it more predictable.

Oil companies have more expertise in working on offshore platforms than do companies that specialize in wind energy. Instead of building a foundation for turbines on the ocean floor, at least one oil company has begun to explore how to mount them on floating platforms.

Traditional wind energy firms have been operating turbines in the North Sea for years, but the oil companies have begun to outbid them. Their off-shore expertise has helped them drive down their costs.

So far, American oil companies have shown less interest in wind farms. If they decide they’re in the oil business, they will eventually lose market share to renewable energy companies. If they decide they’re in the energy business, they’ll have to start investing in renewable energy. And if any decide to invest heavily in solar power besides or instead of wind, they will still be following the lead of Total, a French oil company.

For that matter, the coal business is dying. Perhaps some of them will have enough sense to invest in renewables to improve their cash flow.

5 Ways The Oil Industry Helps To Keep The Environment Clean

When you think of oil companies, it’s likely you don’t also think of “environmentally-friendly”. We see news about spilled oil, burning tankers, and other issues, and assume that all oil companies are disregarding the health of our planet. This simply isn’t the case, and you’ll be happy to know that the oil industry is actually working to keep the environment clean.

Here are five ways the industry is helping out with Mother Earth.

1. Information

The first step to improving anything is realizing there’s a problem to begin with, then gathering necessary information on the problem. Every time a spill, accident, or fire occurs, the oil industry is gathering precious data to use to combat future problems.

When a spill occurs, it can be devastating for the local ecosystems. Flora and fauna alike are affected by the viscous liquid, often restricting their ability to move, breathe, or perform daily functions. The Deepwater Horizon Rig that caused a massive spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 was much more than just an industrial and environmental disaster; it was a learning experience for the oil industry.

Scientists and researchers from all over the world descended on the Gulf after the spill, and though we’re still learning from it a decade later, the information that was collected has been incredibly beneficial to the industry and has helped pave the way for new containment processes.

2. Better Pipe Maintenance

Maintaining pipelines is a crucial component of keeping the environment clean. Pipes can rupture, leaking oil or natural gas into the environment or even causing explosions and fires under the right conditions. The oil and natural gas industries have focused heavily on creating better maintenance processes and safety standards for pipelines across the country in recent years.

Not only do faulty pipelines put the environment at risk, but they also put thousands of workers at risk as well. Keeping workers and the environment safe not only shows care for the Earth and the industry’s employees but also helps potentially save millions in cleanup dollars.

3. Decreasing Freshwater Usage

Certain processes, such as fracking or separating oil from sands, use millions of gallons of fresh water. This is incredibly damaging to the environment not only because there’s already a shortage of freshwater on a global scale, but also because the wastewater that’s produced is stored in man-made containment units that aren’t always good at containing it.

Fracking wastewater is laced with chemicals that are both harmful to the environment directly and can contaminate other freshwater sources. The oil industry is working hard to minimize the use of freshwater in fracking and separation processes, as well as reducing the amount of wastewater and improving containment.

There’s also some promise in the area of recycling the water itself for use in future processes. In the US, produced water from fracking is being used in certain applications and even some water treatment plants are focusing on better treatment processes to make the water drinkable.

4. Investing In Renewable Energy

Renewable energy is on the horizon, and with the continued focus on wind, solar, hydro, and even tidal energy, the oil industry is starting to take notice. These energy sources offer a promising future, but as of yet, they’re not able to meet the world’s energy demands in an affordable way.

Right now, gasoline, natural gas, and crude oil are much cheaper and more profitable to source, acquire, and sell to the public. Pipelines can transport natural gas thousands of miles away, serving isolated regions and maintaining a constant flow of raw resources throughout the country.

Not to mention, the Canadian economy is highly invested in oil and natural gas, being the 5th and 6th largest producer of each respectively. However, the oil industry isn’t ignoring renewables. With continued investments, we could see a partial or full transition to renewable energy within our lifetime.

5. Using Technology For Better Planning

As technology improves, so too do the processes by which pipelines are planned and built. With new software, engineers can better plan a pipe’s path through an ecosystem in order to minimize the environmental impact. Better diagnostic software can identify issues long before they become spills or ruptures, and even AI tech is playing a role in the oil industry.

Moving Forward

Believe it or not, the oil industry is committed to a safer and more sustainable world. By using technology and data, the industry is improving its processes and ensuring that renewable energy remains an option for the future of energy production.