Wind energy setting records in Minnesota

It's not your imagination. It's been windier than usual lately across Minnesota.

April is the windiest month of the year on average in Minnesota. And this April our winds have blown harder than average.

I had the pleasure of talking with University of Minnesota Professor and excellent MPR weather and climate contributor Mark Seeley during MPR's Climate and Health event this week in Rochester, Minn.

Mark tells me winds this April have been blowing harder than usual. Here's a brief excerpt from Mark's Weather Talk post this week.

April lived up to its reputation for the windiest month on the Minnesota calendar with average wind speeds ranging from 12 to 15 mph and nearly half the days of the month producing peak wind gusts over 30 mph. Several observers reported days with wind gusts over 40 and 50 mph.

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Wind gusts at MSP Airport Friday April 29, 2016. Source: NOAA/FAA

Taking advantage of the wind

I've been looking into some specifics on how all that wind is working to generate electric power in Minnesota. I've asked Randy Fordice from Xcel Energy for some details about wind energy output from Xcel's wind program.

Excel Grand Meadow 1
Wind turbines at Excel Energy's Grand Meadow, Minnesota generation site. Image:Excel Energy

It turns out our winds have been producing some unprecedented power production across the Upper Midwest lately.

On one day last November, more than 50 percent of Xcel's total energy output was produced by wind. That's a pretty remarkable fact for renewable energy, and one that might have been unthinkable just five or 10 years ago.

Here are some excerpts from my email exchange with Randy Fordice at Xcel Energy.

Hi Paul,

Over the past number of years Xcel Energy has been able to increase the amount of wind energy on its system due to pretty sophisticated wind forecasting software we have developed.

The technology has enabled us to better site wind resources in areas we will get more production, as well as better pair wind energy with fossil fuel plants to provide the amount of electricity we need to meet our customers’ use. It’s also enabled us to ramp down coal plants at times of heavy wind production.

Randy elaborates on the record amount of wind energy produces recently.

October 28, 2015 at 9:00 pm. We hit a new maximum hourly generation record of 1,899 megawatts of electricity coming from wind energy. That’s enough electricity to power about 1.4 million average homes.

Nov. 8, 2015: 41.3 percent of the energy we produced that day was from wind energy, another new record.

November 9, 2015, 2:00 am: 53.4 percent of our generation was from wind energy, a new hourly wind generation record for Xcel Energy’s Upper Midwest system.

I asked Randy about how much of Xcel's totals energy is currently produced by wind.

Paul, as of the end of 2015 we have 13.7 percent of our electricity in the Upper Midwest is from wind energy. We are on track to exceed 25 percent (renewable) energy by the end of this year.

If Xcel meets the projected 25 percent goal of energy through renewables by the end of this year that is pretty remarkable to me as a weather scientist and climate journalist. It is another benchmark in the story of just how quickly the shift to renewable energy is happening.

Excel Grand Meadow 2
Sunset at Excel Energy's Grand Meadow, Minnesota generation site. Image:Excel Energy

Climate change and wind speeds

Many of you have asked me about how climate change may be affecting wind speeds in Minnesota. The still-early data seems to be inconclusive at this point.

Here's another excerpt from Mark Seeley's Weather Talk post this week.

MPR Listener question

It has been very windy this spring, and in fact it seems wind speeds have been higher across southern Minnesota in recent years. Is this a result of climate change?

Answer

This question has not been comprehensively addressed by the atmospheric and climate science community yet. The few studies so far have yielded mixed results, suggesting a decline in mean wind speeds for some Midwest locations, and an increase in others.

Analysis of the data over decades is difficult because the instruments used to measure wind speed by the NOAA-National Weather Service have changed over time. Fewer mechanical anemometers (spinning cups) are used and more sonic anemometers (the type that use sound wave attenuation to measure wind speed) are used today.

Many projections made by climate models suggest that mean winds speeds may increase over time across the Great Lakes States, including Minnesota, but we have not yet validated this projection with real measured data.

A good overview of wind measurements and trends in our region can be found from an Iowa State University publication.

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