The Role of Atmospheric Science in Renewable Energy Usage

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Tuesday, 19 January 2010: 8:45 AM
B202 (GWCC)
Betsy Weatherhead, University of Colorado, Boulder, CO

As the world moves towards renewable forms of energy, atmospheric science is emerging as a critical component, particularly for incorporating both wind and solar energy. New efforts with climatological studies, measurements and forecasts are important challenges for the renewable energy communities. For energy companies to make use of wind and solar energy, they must have accurate forecasts and a strong understanding of climatologies. Measurements of wind at appropriate turbine heights and measurements of the direct beam of solar radiation are needed to understand mechanisms and improve forecasts. Without accurate forecasts, coal-plants and nuclear plants need to stay active to assure a continuous source of electricity. These research and monitoring requirements bring the focus on how NOAA, DOE, academia and industry will meet these pressing needs.

Both wind power and solar power are experiencing large growth in the energy industry. The most recent solar meeting, Intersolar North America, 2009 attracted over 17,000 people and the most recent wind meeting, Windpower 2009, attracted over 23,000 people. As the industry gears up, clear guidance is needed from the atmospheric science community as to appropriate placement of new wind and solar installations. On a higher level, planning placement of wind and solar should take place simultaneously in order for the variability of one source to be partially offset by the variability of the other. Movement of electricity around the country, from regions of high wind or solar potential to areas where the electricity is needed, may require adjustments to existing or future grids. All of this planning requires a strong understanding of long-term climatologies of wind and solar levels, including estimates of variability and possible future changes and the requirements of the energy communities.

A number of specific questions are identified for renewable energy that can be best addressed by the atmospheric science community. These questions include: Where are the best places for solar and wind installation facilities? What are the winds at turbine heights—typically 20 to 200 meters? What is the climatology of direct beam solar radiation as it relates to what can be converted to electricity? How well can we forecast the amount of energy from both wind and solar? How confident can we be about the forecasts we make? Is vertical shear in wind a critical factor to the early demise of wind turbines? Do wind turbines have significant down-stream impacts on climate, including wind, evaporation and cloud formation? What are the likely lowest levels that we can expect from wind and solar installations in a season--a form of wind and solar “droughts?” How large of role do anthropogenic aerosols have in the direct beam solar radiation that can be converted to electricity? How do solar and wind co-vary in a manner that will supply a more consistent stream of energy? Can we predict sudden drops in wind energy or solar energy with enough advance warning to have appropriate other forms of energy available? Are there climatological impacts from large wind and solar installations? What will be the impacts to the environment of the high water usage required by some forms of renewable energy? How far apart do wind farms need to be placed in order to have the optimal balance between high energy production and low co-variation to produce a continuous stream of energy?

With the high industry interest and the broad demands placed on the atmospheric science community, the question naturally arises as to which roles are best fulfilled by industry, which by academia and which by government. Historically, long-term atmospheric monitoring and national forecasts have been carried out by the federal government, most prominently NOAA. Industry often defends the right to create specialized forecasts and keep local network data proprietary. While academia, together with the national laboratories and private industry jointly contribute to improved modeling and analysis. How these roles will carry forward with the enormous challenges brought by the renewable energy transition will be determined in the coming years. Given the importance of the issue to the health and economies of this planet, early cooperation and appropriate setting of priorities will be critical to the success of renewable energy integration.

The American Meteorological Society addressed the roles that the atmospheric science community can serve in the transition to more renewable energy usage at their summer meeting in Norman, Oklahoma. The author co-chaired this portion of the meeting along with Richard Eckman of NASA, which included representatives from industry, academia and several federal agencies including NOAA, NASA and DOE. The results of this meeting as well as a summary of current challenges will be addressed.