Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Wind Forecast

The landscape of West Texas is being changed with the addition of giant wind turbine farms. Driving from Fort Worth to Amarillo, it is hard not to miss the impact and potential of wind power. People are committing to wind power all over the world - - the European Union has committed itself to getting 20% of its electricity from renewable energy sources, namely wind power. The U.S. has similar goals while China is on track to triple its wind capacity.

But wind is a function of geography and time. The wind has to blow in specific places (like West Texas) and at specific times (in the case of West Texas, preferable in the summer given our electricity demand during the summer months). Capacity does not equal electricity - - that is why wind forecasting is critical.

In the first quarter of 2010, investors poured $14.1 billion into wind power projects. A key component of the required due diligence is to establish the linkage between adequate wind capacity and promised rate of return. The availability of assessment tools can broadly be broken down into three different categories - - measure, correlate, predict (MAP) analysis.

Measurement can be difficult - - complex terrain and forests are problematic. Power output is proportional to the cube of the wind speed - - small variations can provide large distortions. Technology improvements will be helpful with future measurement tools - - the Scottish engineering firm of SgurrEnergy has developed Galion Lidar - - a device that measures wind speed, direction, and shear forces by measuring the distortion of pulsed laser beams as they are buffeted by microscopic wind-borne particles.

With 20% of a nations energy generated by wind power - - prediction in the short-term becomes critical. If you are a grid operator - - you really care about the wind 60-minutes into the future. Look for advances in sensors and three dimensional atmospheric modeling combined with statistical modeling aiding short-term prediction. Specialized prediction firms, such as eWind, will provide prediction services. Artificial neural networks could play a role in the future - - “linking and learning” systems that actually learn over time.

Like weather forecasting in a era of climate change uncertainty - - wind forecasting could increase in importance. A unique field combining advanced technology, engineering, statistical analysis, and the atmospheric sciences - - might be a good future career.

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