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Wind turbines are often kept from operating at their full potential.

When consumer demand for energy falls, grid operators often turn down the output of wind farms instead of cutting the use of polluting coal plants.

Sam Gomberg is senior energy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists. He says operators often prioritize coal plants because contracts guarantee them a minimum level of production.

“Instead of the grid operator telling the power plant when to run and how much, the power plant gets to tell the grid operator, ‘We’re going to run this much,’” Gomberg says. “So there’s some legacy contract issues in place that don’t give the grid operator as much control over coal power plants as they do over wind power plants.”

He says it’s slower and more difficult technologically to change the output of coal plants.

“So they’re not actually as flexible as wind power in this regard. And so in that case, they get a bit of a pass, which is unfortunate because it can create additional and excessive, unnecessary pollution, and it can be more expensive than if you were able to rely on wind power,” Gomberg says.

So adding clean energy to the grid takes more than building new wind farms. It also requires making sure that grid operators can make the most of those farms that are already producing energy.

Reporting credit: Sarah Kennedy/ChavoBart Digital Media