Alexander MacDonald on wind forecasting to reduce cost of windpower

July 18 marked the launch of the Wind Forecast Improvement Project (WFIP), which is intended to give a boost to the windpower industry, in the U.S.

Yesterday (July 18, 2011) marked the launch of Wind Forecast Improvement Project (WFIP), a collaboration among the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA), the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), and several private wind energy companies and academic institutions. According to Alexander MacDonald, NOAA deputy assistant administrator for research, the goal of this new wind forecasting project is to lower the cost of electric power for the consumer by improving our understanding of how to harness wind. He told EarthSky’s Beth Lebwohl:

Our starting point is to improve the basic wind forecast for all users, including wind power and conventional energy companies, the aviation industry and the general public.

To this end, WFIP collaborators will be studying wind across the Upper Midwest and Texas – both are prime settings for windpower farms in the United States, and provide wind patterns representative of those across the United States, Dr. MacDonald told us. He explained that improving our ability to predict wind will help the United States create a more robust energy system – one that takes into account the primary pitfall of windpower: it isn’t consistently reliable.

If we have windfarms, when the wind is blowing pretty well, they’re supplying lots of power, but if the wind goes calm fairly quickly, the power that is needed to supply to the grid to the electricity of all the people who are using it, we can’t just say, “Gosh, you can’t use your computer now, because we have no wind.” What we’re trying to do with the Wind Forecast Improvement Project is to learn how to better predict what the wind’s going to do. If you know what it’s going to do, you can make it part of your energy system. You can be ready with a gas teaker plant, a plant you can turn on when the wind isn’t so strong.

WFIP collaborators hope to improve wind forecasts by determining more about when and how hard the wind blows several hundred feet above Earth’s surface; this low altitude is the dominion of windmills. From a NOAA press release:

WFIP researchers will gather atmospheric data from instruments such as wind profiling radars, sodars and anemometers, which will capture detailed images of wind speed and direction in the atmosphere. The team is especially interested in wind speeds and directions up to 400 feet above the ground.

Image Credit: Derek Purdy

The data will be used to help drive a high-resolution research weather model at Earth System Research Laboratory (ESRL). In other words, it will improve local weather forecasts – and wind forecasts, in particular. WFIP collaborators expect that, around this time next year, they’ll be able to provide better information to wind companies in the U.S. about exactly when and where wind can be harnessed. That, in turn, will lower the cost of windpower, Dr MacDonald told us.

It makes it so it can be more reliable. That is, you’ll be able to say, “I think we’ll have this amount of power available.” And if you’re running a power company, you want to know what’s available, so you can plan for it. It does make the windpower industry more economically viable.”

More and better wind farms mean cheaper wind energy, he explained. Dr. MacDonald added that NOAA and the DOE, after a competitive bid process, have elected to work with two private companies – AWS Truepower, LLC and WindLogics, Inc – on the WFIP project. The project will cost upwards of $6 million; it is one of a number of U.S. government-led initiatives to help the United States achieve 80 percent “clean energy” by 2035. The goal was established by President Obama in his 2011 State of the Union address, as well as his Blueprint for a Secure Energy Future.

Dr. Macdonald added the wind data garnered from the WFIP project will have other benefits, beyond application to clean energy.

When we make improvements in how well we can forecast the wind, it actually also helping us with all of our other forecasts. It’s helping us produce what the weather’s going to be at Chicago O’Hare airport, we forecast whether there’s going to be a tornado in Missouri an hour from now…

In other words, he said, this research into how you make a better wind forecast really helps all of the other forecasts that NOAA is responsible for.

Bottom line: July 18, 2011 marked the launch of Wind Forecast Improvement Project (WFIP), a collaboration among NOAA, the U.S. Department of Energy, and several private wind energy companies and academic institutions. The end goal is to reduce the cost of windpower in the United States.

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Beth Lebwohl