Cheaper solar, wind with better weather forecasting

Because output from renewables are often intermittent, they need fossil fuel plants as backup. New software from IBM hopes to improve these power output predictions.

Output from wind and solar power plants are often intermittent, and to compensate for dips and spikes, they need backup -- like fossil fuel plants. But since it’s rarely clear how much the output will vary, backup power is kept on standby even when it’s not needed.

Better weather analysis could lead to cheaper renewables. Technology Review reports.

IBM has developed software that it hopes would help improve predictions of the power output from renewables -- reducing the need for backup power:

Using multiple data sources, including wind turbine sensors, weather forecasts, and images of clouds, the software can forecast power output as little as 15 minutes and as much as a month in advance.

With models that reduce the need for excessive backup power, renewable energy would be more valuable to utilities. Additionally, if a plant’s operators could more accurately forecast output, they’d have less reason to rely on energy storage -- which is needed now to provide a smooth flow of power into the transmission grid.

Utilities rely on specialized companies to produce wind and solar forecasts based on weather models and other meteorological data.

But wind measurements taken from turbines are often unreliable because energy has already been extracted from the incoming wind, and because vibrations affect readings.

For this new project, IBM analyzed data from all the turbines to come up with a more accurate representation of actual wind speed and direction. It’s now operating at a combined solar and wind demonstration project in Zhangbei, China.

IBM also built a meteorological model specific to this site and installed video cameras to track the movements of clouds to inform solar forecasts.

[Technology Review]

Image: Dave Goodman via Flickr

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