Wind Study Aims To Improve Forecasts

Sure, wind power plant operators use weather forecasts to anticipate surges and declines in the power they can feed into the grid. But the forecasts aren’t always precise, and even a little variation can cause havoc in efficiently mixing hydro, wind, solar and fossil-fuel sources. Help might be at hand, however: Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory are delving more deeply than ever into how wind aloft behaves, using existing technologies in new ways to – they hope – improve forecasts.

This project is unfolding near the Stateline Wind Energy Center, a 300-megawatt wind power plant on both sides of the eastern Washington-Oregon border. The main focus is on wind speeds around 350 feet up in the air, where wind power turbines actually whir. One tool in the researchers’ arsenal is the National Weather Service’s NEXRAD Doppler radar weather station in Pendleton, Ore., about 19 miles south of Stateline. For this study, computers will analyze the returned Doppler radar signals to determine how the wind varies in the area.

image via NextEra Energy Resources

Researchers are also installing various tools on and near a radio tower in the Stateline area. Among those tools is a radar wind profiler that sends out radio waves that are bounced back when they hit variations in moisture or temperature. This system is similar to Doppler radar, but instead of using one rotating radar beam, it sends three radar beams up into the sky.

Another tool going up on the radar tower: ultrasonic anemometers. These hold six tiny microphones, and measure the time it takes for sound pulses to travel from one microphone to another, giving the researchers more insight into wind speed and direction.

“We know that the wind will blow, but the real challenge is to know when and how much,” said atmospheric scientist Larry Berg. “This project takes an interesting approach — adapting an established technology for a new use — to find a reliable way to measure winds and improve wind power forecasts.”

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Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.