Better Wind Forecasts Bring Gust Of Savings

As an energy resource, wind is notoriously difficult for utilities to predict and manage. Because large amounts of electricity cannot be stored cost-effectively, energy generated by a wind turbine must be consumed almost immediately, to avoid costly imbalances in supply and demand. To meet this challenge, the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) developed a wind energy forecasting system that enables utilities to harvest energy from wind turbines more effectively. Work on the system began in 2009 when NCAR struck a deal with wind developer Xcel Eerngy, and according to NCAR the system saved Xcel ratepayers a cool $6 million in 2010.

“The goal of this project is to make it more affordable for Xcel Energy to bring on more wind energy,” said William Mahoney, an NCAR program director overseeing the project. “Xcel Energy has been very proactive in adding wind energy to its system, but one of the major obstacles is the difficulty in predicting when and how strongly winds will blow at the locations of turbines. Every fraction that we can improve the forecasts results in real savings.”

xcel-wind

image via Xcel Energy

The system’s forecasting methods are reportedly 35 percent more accurate than previous systems, enabling Xcel’s operators to better anticipate the amount of energy produced by wind farms across the utility’s service area in Colorado, Minnesota, New Mexico, Texas and Wisconsin. When necessary, the system allows operators more time to make critical decisions, such as whether to power down coal and natural gas plants to compensate for increased wind production.

To generate the forecasts, the system uses observations of current atmospheric conditions from satellites, aircraft, weather radars, ground-based weather stations and turbine-mounted sensors, which are updated every 15 minutes. The project builds on tools that NCAR developed for the U.S. military, National Weather Service, aviation industry, U.S. Department of Transportation, foreign governments, and other organizations.

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Lauren Craig is a writer and consultant living in Seattle, WA. She holds an M.S. in International Development from Tulane University, and is co-founder of Sustainable Systems Integrators, LLC., an employee-owned solar energy design and installation firm in New Orleans, LA. She is also certified in PV design and installation by the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP).