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Advancements in Weather Forecasting Pave the Way for more Renewable Energy

By Marc AlessiPublished October 24, 2014

Renewable energy sources were once inefficient and not nearly as cost-effective as energy coming from burning fossil-fuels. However, recent advancements in weather forecasting technology have allowed for the improved efficiency and production of renewable energy sources. This technology will continue to improve and help renewable energies expand in the coming years.
By Marc Alessi, 10/24/14

Renewable energy is the fastest growing source of energy in the world.  Between 2009 and 2013, total wind power generation in gigawatt-hour production more than doubled and solar power generation more than quintupled.  Advancements in technology for both renewable energies have allowed the fast increase in production; however, in recent years and even months, the efficiency of wind power has drastically improved and the same is possible in the future for solar power.  This is all due to advancements in weather forecasts associated with areas that sustain large wind farms.  With a higher efficiency in total gigawatt-hour production, we could see in the coming years an immense increase in wind and solar power.

The windy eastern plains of Colorado have seen a boom in wind farm construction.  Since 2011, three new, high-tech wind farms have been built and a new one is expected to be finished by the end of the year.  The utility company responsible for building these wind farms was at first skeptical of whether or not the renewable energy source would pay for itself.  "Before the forecasts were developed, Xcel Energy, which supplies much of Colorado's power, ran ads opposing a proposal that it use renewable sources… claiming that such a mandate would increase electricity costs by as much as $1.5 billion over 20 years."  But today, Xcel Energy has installed more wind power than any other U.S. utility company, thanks to its use of high-tech weather forecasting equipment.

To get on-the-dot forecasts, Xcel Energy works with the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado.  The computer models used there, combined with data from weather satellites, Doppler radar, and observations at each and every windmill, provide frequent forecasts with unparalleled accuracy.  This advancement in technology comes from embedded sensors and data processing algorithms, which allows the windmills to quickly adapt to changes in wind direction and wind speed.  According to Douglas Adams, professor of mechanical engineering at Purdue University, "The adaptive capability is a game-changer because it allows the turbine to maximize the power it produces, while simultaneously ensuring the reliability of the turbine is maintained."

Before the advent of advanced weather forecasts and data processing within turbines, integrating wind power into the electricity grid was nearly impossible, according to Dayton Jones who works for Xcel Energy.  More backup fossil-fuel plants had to be kept working at all times, in case of a sudden change in the wind and microclimate of the area.  This was not only inefficient, but also cost more money for Xcel Energy; however
, with the forecasts, Xcel Energy is saving money for its customers, producing more power, and polluting the atmosphere much less.  In fact, on one day in May, 2013, wind power production accounted for an American record of 60% of the total energy supplied to Xcel Energy's Colorado customers.

And it just keeps getting better.  Now, Xcel and NCAR are working together to develop forecasts to improve solar power production, a more arduous task than wind forecasting.  NCAR's new solar forecasts will provide information for how much a given solar panel is producing and how it will change over time.  With solar panels on business and homes, net zero carbon emissions are possible, especially with advanced forecasts and a smart electricity grid that knows how to interpret those forecasts. 

Renewable energy is on the rise.  With continued advancements in technology, wind and solar power will become more efficient and produce more energy than ever before.  Furthermore, an increase in efficiency and production will lead to lower renewable energy prices.  As prices drop, renewable energy will not only attract more businesses, but may eventually produce more clean energy per unit price compared to fossil-fuel energy, halting the contribution of the human race to global climate change.  Improved weather forecasts are paving the once-rocky road wind and solar power had to travel to beat out fossil fuel production.  A promising future, with technology leading the way.