Disappearing wind turbines almost leaves Alberta, Canada in the dark

The following article is one of the best explanations of what happened in Alberta, Canada, during the cold snap. It was written on Substack by Penguin Empire Reports. Click the link to read more articles by the author.

Some things look great on paper until they are tested with the cold, hard reality.

For years, the province of Alberta, Canada looked like a decent place to build large scale wind projects. Alberta has wide open, windy spaces. So, in the name of fighting global warming (AKA raking in government subsidies) wind developers built nearly 4,500MWs of wind capacity as of January 2024. Solar’s installed capacity sits at 1650MWs for a combined wind and solar capacity of just over 6100MWs.

In January of 2024, Alberta’ wind turbines faced one of their most serious tests to date: a Polar Vortex pushed artic air down through Canada and into the United States. Temperatures plummeted, sending Alberta’s grid demand sky high.

CBC news reported on Friday January 12th that “Just before sunrise in Edmonton, temperatures hit lows of –37C (-34.6F), breaking a daily record of –32 (-25F) set in 1998.”

And it got colder.

On Friday night going into Saturday (13th) at Edmonton International Airport, temperatures dropped to -45C (-49F) by 10pm (according to weather.gov.ca).

As astute readers may know, a grid consumes electricity as it’s produced. If Alberta needs 12,000MWs of power, it has to produced 12,000MWs of power at the same instant (more or less). If the real-time supply and demand gets out of whack, the ‘pressure’ on the grid drops, forcing grid operators to call on other generators, force customers to reduce demand, or initiated rolling blackouts.

And no grid should run at 100% capacity. A grid should keep some capacity in reserve. If your largest plant suddenly runs into trouble and has to be pulled offline, you want more than enough standby capacity to plug that gap. And, even the best generators might struggle to provide maximum output during extreme weather. So, to safely operate, a grid wants to keep some standby capacity, well in excess of peak demand.

During the polar Vortex, Alberta’s grid demand skyrocket, hitting 10,000, 11,000, and more than 12,000MWs of demand. To supply that demand, Alberta’s gas plants have run hard, and the province had to rely on imports.

Of course, at night, Alberta’s 1650 MWs of solar were completely useless.

And wind output failed too. On the night of Jan 12-13, during the record-breaking cold temperatures, wind output stood at only 14MWs at 2115hrs. That wasn’t the lowest either. Early in the evening, wind output stood at 8-10MWs. But 8MWs would barely show up on the chart. So, we’re going with output at 2115hrs.

No, that’s not an exaggeration. Basically, Alberta’s wind was missing when the grid needed it most.

While the exact wind and solar output varied, it remained extremely low for the past few days, based on data from Alberta’s Electricity System Operator.

With Alberta’s wind and solar output basically not existent, natural gas plants, coal, hydro and imports are keeping the grid operating. Yet even with those dispatchable resources, some suffered issues and had to be pulled offline.

While the cold snap is still ongoing, there are two major issues.

The extreme cold brought with it a wind drought as the cold air stagnated over the region. Here’s a snapshot of Edmonton Airport wind speed Jan 12-13. Yes, Edmonton Airport doesn’t report wind speed at rotor height, but it gives you a fairly decent idea.

As astute readers may know, for a commercial wind turbine to operate, it needs wind speeds to be at least somewhere between 6-11 MPH (~10-17 KM/hr) (depending on turbine type). This is known as the ‘cut-in’ speed when the wind turbine starts to operate.

Plus, wind power is a function of wind speed cubed. If you double the wind speed, you increase the wind power potential by 8x. It goes the other way as well. When wind speed drops to 1/2, you go down to just 1/8th of the potential power.

In addition to reduced wind speed, wind turbines aren’t designed to operate at extremely cold temperatures.

General Electric (one of North America’s major turbine manufacturer) published a 2022 “GE Renewable Energy’s Cold Weather Solutions” document. In it, GE reported that:

GE Renewable Energy wind turbines are available from the factory with either a Standard Weather (STW) or Cold Weather Extreme (CWE) package. Standard Weather turbines have a minimum operating temperature limit of -15ºC (5ºF) while the Cold Weather Extreme turbines have a minimum operating temperature limit of -30ºC (-22ºF).

If you have moderately cold weather (above -22F), wind operators can do things like install heaters and change out lubricants, so they don’t freeze up the rotor. If the blades ice up, operators can apply de-icing agents to the blades to reduce the weight and reduce the hazard of flinging ice shards off as the blades spin.

But there’s only so much you can do for extremely cold temperatures, dropping below -22F.


Turbines are made up of metals and plastics. And they are designed to rotate with extreme leverages and forces placed where the rotator and blades meet. When temperatures drop extremely low, metals and plastics tend to shrink, become brittle, and loose flexibility, running the risk of creating micro fractures in a turbine’s assembly. Continued operations at extreme temperatures run the risk of permanently damaging the turbine, if not all together leading to catastrophic failure.

But that’s not all. Here is the shocking bit to pay attention to in the context of the extreme weather in Alberta. GE added:

“For CWE (Cold weather extreme turbines), the electrical components, gearbox and generator are designed to survive, not operate, down to -40ºC (-40ºF)” (emphasis added).

And Alberta hit -49F. While we’ll have to see how long the extreme weather lasts and what impact it will have on the provinces’ turbines, it’s fair to say that at least some turbines could potentially see an increased risk of long-term damage if the extreme cold continues.

If our leadership was paying attention, this wind disaster in Alberta should put a serious chill on pushing wind power as a viable solution, not if you want to see a resilient grid that is able to withstand extreme winter temperatures. Cold weather can kill, and it’s when people need a grid to be the most reliable. Yet as we’re watching in real time in Alberta, the only reason the province isn’t literally freezing to death is because the province still has a massive amount of gas power plants, some hydro and coal, and enough transmission connections to keep the lights on.

We’ll leave you with this screen shot from the Alberta Electricity System Operator on 1/12/2024 at 2115hrs. (According to power-technology.com, 900MW of gas at Cascade is finalizing construction. It’s backed out for the following calculations.)

At that time, gas produced at ~84% of its capacity. Coal was running at 99%, hydro at ~35%, solar 0%, and wind…at 0.3% of nameplate capacity.

If Alberta had listened to the greens’ siren song and traded away more of its coal and natural gas plants for wind and solar, then we might be watching Alberta literally freeze to death in the name of fighting global warming.