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How Well Did Wind Energy Perform During the Bomb Cyclone?

Renewable Energy
Illustration of Vineyard Wind's proposal to construct a wind energy project off the coast of Massachusetts. Vineyward Wind

By Hannah Hunt

Extreme weather events offer an opportunity to take stock of our power system—how well will it withstand days of prolonged stress? Earlier this year, the eastern half of the U.S. faced one of these trials, as the "Bomb Cyclone" blasted the region with frigid air for a number of days.

The result: no major power plant outages, and a power system that held strong in the face of challenging weather conditions. And wind power made an important contribution to a resilient energy mix, helping to keep the lights on for American families and businesses.


As was the case during the 2014 Polar Vortex event and the Texas 2011 cold snap, wind output was well above average when the power system needed it most. Across the Mid-Atlantic and the Northeast throughout the Bomb Cyclone event, wind production surpassed both average winter and average annual output.

Let's first look at PJM, the grid operator serving 13 states and Washington, DC. From Jan. 3 through Jan. 7, wind output in PJM was 55 percent higher than average wind output in 2017. During the highest demand periods on January 3-5, wind output was consistently three to five times greater than the level PJM plans for and compensates wind for in its capacity market. Wind's capacity factor exceeded 50 percent multiple times during the three-day period.

In New England, wind output was also well above average throughout most of the event, and more than twice its normal level during some of the most challenging periods on Jan. 5 and 6, as shown below. Wind output surpassed the region's coal generation on those days.

Grid Operator Studies Show Values of Renewables for Resilience

In January, the New England grid operator released a report examining resilience to extreme winter weather under a range of different electric generation mixes for the mid-2020s. While initial reporting focused on scenarios that did not perform as well, a number of scenarios with higher shares of renewable generation proved to be more reliable and resilient than the current power system. In fact, three of the four of the most reliable portfolios were high renewable scenarios.

PJM's 2017 resilience analysis also found that scenarios with very high levels of renewables were among the most resilient. PJM's study discussed a range of other events that can cause outages at conventional power plants as well, like flooding, drought, high temperatures, and coal barge and rail congestion. Renewable resources like wind and solar PV are generally resilient to such disruptions because they are not dependent on deliveries of fuel or cooling water.

Previous studies have found that more than 96 percent of customer electric outage hours happen because of severe weather, rather than disruptions of electricity generation. High winds, falling trees and other factors knock out power lines, causing lost power. Such was the case in Puerto Rico, where the island is still recovering. The main issue wasn't damage to its power plants, but rather the complete decimation of its transmission system. That demonstrates that building a resilient electric grid requires a diverse generation mix, as well as transmission and infrastructure upgrades.

Further analysis of the "Bomb Cyclone" can be found here.

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A volcano erupts on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island on Dec. 9, 2019. Michael Schade / Twitter

A powerful volcano on Monday rocked an uninhabited island frequented by tourists about 30 miles off New Zealand's coast. Authorities have confirmed that five people died. They expect that number to rise as some are missing and police officials issued a statement that flights around the islands revealed "no signs of life had been seen at any point,", as The Guardian reported.

"Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island," the police said in their official statement. "Police is working urgently to confirm the exact number of those who have died, further to the five confirmed deceased already."

The eruption happened on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island, an islet jutting out of the Bay of Plenty, off the country's North Island. The island is privately owned and is typically visited for day-trips by thousands of tourists every year, according to The New York Times.

Michael Schade / Twitter

At the time of the eruption on Monday, about 50 passengers from the Ovation of Seas were on the island, including more than 30 who were part of a Royal Caribbean cruise trip, according to CNN. Twenty-three people, including the five dead, were evacuated from the island.

The eruption occurred at 2:11 pm local time on Monday, as footage from a crater camera owned and operated by GeoNet, New Zealand's geological hazards agency, shows. The camera also shows dozens of people walking near the rim as white smoke billows just before the eruption, according to Reuters.

Police were unable to reach the island because searing white ash posed imminent danger to rescue workers, said John Tims, New Zealand's deputy police commissioner, as he stood next to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in a press conference, as The New York Times reported. Tims said rescue workers would assess the safety of approaching the island on Tuesday morning. "We know the urgency to go back to the island," he told reporters.

"The physical environment is unsafe for us to return to the island," Tims added, as CNN reported. "It's important that we consider the health and safety of rescuers, so we're taking advice from experts going forward."

Authorities have had no communication with anyone on the island. They are frantically working to identify how many people remain and who they are, according to CNN.

Geologists said the eruption is not unexpected and some questioned why the island is open to tourism.

"The volcano has been restless for a few weeks, resulting in the raising of the alert level, so that this eruption is not really a surprise," said Bill McGuire, emeritus professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, as The Guardian reported.

"White Island has been a disaster waiting to happen for many years," said Raymond Cas, emeritus professor at Monash University's school of earth, atmosphere and environment, as The Guardian reported. "Having visited it twice, I have always felt that it was too dangerous to allow the daily tour groups that visit the uninhabited island volcano by boat and helicopter."

The prime minister arrived Monday night in Whakatane, the town closest to the eruption, where day boats visiting the island are docked. Whakatane has a large Maori population.

Ardern met with local council leaders on Monday. She is scheduled to meet with search and rescue teams and will speak to the media at 7 a.m. local time (1 p.m. EST), after drones survey the island, as CNN reported.