Applying its atmospheric expertise to solar energy, the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) is spearheading a three-year, nationwide project to create unprecedented, 36-hour forecasts of incoming energy from the Sun for solar power plants.
"It's critical for utility managers to know how much sunlight will be reaching solar energy plants in order to have confidence that they can supply sufficient power when their customers need it," says Sue Ellen Haupt , director of NCAR's Weather Systems and Assessment Program. "These detailed cloud and irradiance forecasts are a vital step in using more energy from the Sun."
Currently, the research team is designing a prototype that forecasts sunlight and its resulting power every 15 minutes over specific solar facilities, which will enable utilities to continuously anticipate the amount of available solar energy.
Accurately predicting cloud cover over specific geographical areas is one of the biggest challenges in meteorology. In addition to helping utilities tap solar energy more effectively, detailed cloud predictions can also improve the accuracy of shorter-term weather forecasts.
Solar energy output is affected not just by when and where clouds form, but also by the types of clouds present. The thickness and elevation of clouds have greatly differing effects on the amount of sunlight reaching the ground. Wispy cirrus clouds several miles above the surface, for example, block far less sunlight than thick, low-lying stratus clouds.
To design a system that can generate such detailed forecasts, NCAR and its partners will use an array of observing instruments, including lidars (which use laser-based technology to take measurements in the atmosphere); specialized computer models; and mathematical and artificial intelligence techniques. Central to the effort will be three sky imagers in several locations, which will observe the entire sky, triangulate the height and depth of clouds, and trace their paths across the sky.
The team will test these capabilities in various seasons in the Northeast, Florida, Colorado/New Mexico, and California. The goal is to ensure that the system works year round in different types of weather patterns.
Once the system is tested, the techniques will be disseminated to the energy industry and meteorologists.
A $4.1 million grant from the Department of Energy is the primary source of funding. NCAR is working with government labs and universities across the country, in partnership with utilities, other energy companies, and commercial forecast providers.
In another project, NCAR designed a very detailed wind energy forecasting system that saved Xcel ratepayers an estimated $6 million in a single year. The center is also creating advanced prediction capabilities to enable wind farm developers to anticipate wind energy potential anywhere in the world.
and a new world-class center dedicated to advancing the state of weather and climate science.
And scientists at NCAR are now using one of the world's fastest supercomputers to accelerate climate change research. A researcher there found that shifting from coal to natural gas won't significantly slow down climate change.
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