Prospecting for wind

Before the Lights Go Out is Maggie's new book about how our current energy systems work, and how we'll have to change them in the future. It comes out April 10th and is available for pre-order now. (E-book pre-orders coming soon!) Over the next couple of months, Maggie will be posting some energy-related stories based on things she learned while researching the book. This is one of them.

Steve_Saus submitterated this video that combines 14 years of weather radar images with a soothing piano concerto. It's a neat thing to watch a couple minutes of (though I'm not sure I needed to sit around for all 33 minutes of the video). It also reminded me of something really interesting that I learned about U.S. weather patterns and alternative energy.

Weather data, like the kind visualized here, can be collected, analyzed, and turned into algorithms that show us, in increasingly granular detail, what we can expect the weather to do in a specific part of the United States. Today, you can even break this information down to show what happens in one small part of a state compared to another small part. And that's important. As we increase our reliance on sources of energy that are based on weather patterns, this kind of information will become crucial to not only predicting how much power we can expect to get from a given wind farm, but also in deciding where to build that wind farm in the first place.

Take Texas as an example, which has the most installed wind power capacity of any U.S. state. That's great. Unfortunately, most of those wind farms are built in places where we can't use the full benefit of that wind power, because the wind peaks at night—just as electricity demand hits its low point. A simple change in location would make each wind turbine more useful, and make it a better investment.

It works like this ...

Wind patterns vary a lot from place to place and season to season, says Greg Polous, Ph.D., a meteorologist and director of V-Bar, LLC, a company that consults with energy companies about trends in wind patterns. In general, though, wind farms from Texas to North Dakota are subject to something called the Great Plains Low Level Jet.

This phenomenon happens because said Plains are flat. There's very few geographic features out there to impede the strong winds that blow through the region. During the day, heat rising off the ground causes turbulence and friction in the atmosphere above the Plains, slowing the wind down somewhat. But at night, that turbulence disappears, and the wind accelerates.

There are exceptions to this rule, however, and they are really interesting. If you build a wind farm out in far West Texas, you have to deal with the Great Plains Low Level Jet—hitting the peak in wind power and potential electric production at the same time the grid hits its nadir in electric demand. That's no good, because there's no storage on the electric grid. All that potential electric power the turbines could be producing at night simply goes to waste if nobody wants it.

But, if you build your wind farm on Texas' Gulf Coast, you don't have that problem. Instead, a coastal turbine would be subject to the Sea Breeze Effect, caused by differences in temperature between the air above the water and the air above the land. In those places, wind power—and electric generation—actually peaks on summer afternoons, right when demand for electricity is peaking, too.

Today, oil and gas companies spend a lot of time and money prospecting for new reserves of fuel. In the future, we'll prospect for wind and solar, too, using weather pattern data to spot the best sites where we get the most energy bang for our infrastructure buck.

Image: Mystery Photo, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from randa's photostream


  1. Excellent.  Now map this out internationally, and we’ll have a list of the windiest nations we can declare war on.:-P 

  2. I’m not sure if this post is the kind of thing I’d like to read in its entirety, but I did enjoy the first few sentences.

    1. Bullion of the sky. Etherial tea. Pennies from the heavens. The jet-set stream. The gusting gusher. Breezy bonanza. The windy… windfall.

      1. Bullion of the sky. Etherial tea.

        Why do I have a sudden urge to head out to the cement pond?

  3. Can someone please tell me what the hell is happening around 26:29? Huge blue spots appear all over the country!

    1.  As best I can gather, the blobs are the weather observation centres.
      They have to tune their radar, and on very humid days (or very dry ones? I don’t know how it works) they have to trade off range for being too sensitive close in. So you get a blob around them. covered this a while back.

  4. Actually, there are ways to use night-time wind energy – if EVs become more popular, we may end up needing the night-time capacity for battery charging.

    And, there are various methods of energy storage that can be used, as well, to feed the energy to the grid during lulls in output.

    1. Absolutely, Eric. But those things don’t exist yet and they require big infrastructure investments. This is just about how we can get more out of the stuff we are planning on building anyway, until some of this better infrastructure gets built. 

      1. I agree that planning installations around the current demand and conditions is what’s most useful, but I was reading a tone (that may not have been intended) that the installations that were poorly planned were largely useless, which isn’t necessarily the case. :)

  5. Prospecting for wind? Just come over for some of my wife’s five-bean chilli and you’ll have all the wind you need!

  6. Interesting points.  Looking forward to the book.  I have the pre-order sitting in my Amazon cart, waiting for my next purchase.

  7. What I get from that animation is being able to see why the Upper Midwest is such good crop land.  From the looks of it, both Gulf moisture and Pacific systems track through there. 

  8. I was amazed by the hurricanes up the east coast.  They didn’t seem to last any longer than the regular storms, probably as an artifact of the time-scale at which we were watching it.

  9. Hah – ask any kiteboarder/windsurfer, this is what we do –  we wander around trying to find the windiest places on the planet.  I just moved to Waihee, where the wind blows at least 15 mph 50% of the time in the winter, and 95% of the time  in the summer.  Yes, there are a lot of wind turbines here – all sorts of folks are building homebrew turbines in their backyards.  Plus, the fact that the local utilities charge 36 c/kWhr just makes wind power that much sweeter.  Life is good here…  :)

  10. Maggie,

    As someone who works in the field of wind and PV, I found the central thesis of your article rather questionable, as it focusses on one aspect of siting (placing installations in the right place to deliver energy at peak demand times) which in the matrix of all other relevant factors determining the location and production of renewable energy is not necessarily decisive. There are two reasons for this:

    1.    Particularly with wind turbines, environmental impact, local politics, leasehold opportunities, feed-in tariffs, planning policy, and available network capacity in the local grid factor more than what exact time the wind is blowing.
    I am assuming that all these other issues will be part of your book, but, irrespective of that, the particular theme here cannot be considered in isolation from the bigger picture.

    2.    The other underlying issue which you raise is balancing production and demand on the grid. There are at least four other factors which are decisive this respect, none of which you mention, even to say that they need also to be considered. These are

    i) Grid structure and capacity
    Almost all extant grids are star-like in structure. ie they fan out from central nodes where there are large facilities. They have been designed to deliver power from large facilities and distribute it out. The renewable grid needs to look completely different to balance capacity needs. And it needs to be smart. That’s what needs to be built all over the world if renewables are to really grow and of course it will only happen incrementally if at all, and as a result of decisive government policy. There are 8 time zones across the States as well as enormous capacity potential, so all the metric for a grid with great balancing capability. But the US is, as with most things renewable, the last car in the race even though its got the biggest engine. That’s because the US electricity grid is not only very nodal but also very fragmented and central government is too dysfunctional to be able to implement national grid investment policy. An integrated, smart grid would balance supply and demand differences more than the optimization of location you are discussing. HVDC Supercable, European Supergrid – thugs sort of thing. And Smart grid too, on top of all this.

    ii) Network balancing
    You say in the comments that there are no technological solutions for storage of overcapacity. HEP stations are batteries – they pump water up at night using cheap electricity, run it through the turbines at peak times to balance network imbalances. In combination with the use of load difference across the grid, this is an important wax that grid load balancing is done. The key to increasing renewable energy on the grid is the combination of production capacity with grid balancing installations. You should investigate the Norwegian fjord installations which are being used to balance European grid capacity through things such as the NorNed HVDC line (completely privately financed and already amorticised after I think 4 years on line).

    iii) Tariff control
    In it’s crudest form, network imbalance is traditionally managed with flexi-tariffs to stimulate off-peak use. France is the best example of this as they have the biggest issue with it due to the enormous night-time overcapacity they have because of all the nuclear production (which, quite apart from EVERYTHING else with nuclear, is a massive contributor to network imbalance). The french balance their enormous night-time oversupply with very cheap night-time consumer tariffs. With a smart grid comes the potential for smart tariffs, ie feed-in and consumer tariffs which adjust continuously according to network load. If, as they will, the buildings of the future will all be producers as well as consumers, a smart meter can decide whether it is most economical for produced capacity to be utilized locally or fed into the grid, depending on the momentary feed-in and consumer tariffs, if you get what I mean.

    iv) Production mix
    One production form should never be looked at in isolation from the production mix. I mean this in respect of other renewable forms, rather than as an excuse for continued fossil fuel dominance. If you only see wind turbines in isolation as the means to deliver electricity at peak times, you can draw conclusions which become dubious when seen in the overall context. In the example you use, Texas, the PV potential is enormous, so the energy requirements during the day are best served with PV capacity. But the sun doesn’t shine at night. In this context, the potential of the Great Plains Low Level Jet starts to look very different, as, in combination with PV capacity, it may be advantageous the wind turbines whose production peaks in the night may be just what the grid actually needs. This would largely invalidate your location argument. You see what I’m getting at.

    To sum up, optimal siting is only one factor and actually not the most important.

    Hope that’s helpful and I look forward to the book.


    Ernst Gruengast

  11. Maggie, Steve_Saus, Ernest Gruengast, et al,
    Thanks to all of you for a fascinating look into the needs/potentials of the future of wind energy. I certainly enjoyed the music as I viewed the video, Maggie’s initial post and all the comments and replys.
    My brother, a wind-engineer-type himself, alerted me to this post. I clicked to see a slice of his world, but have come away newly educated and interested in renewable energy sources. It’s obvious that like all creative innovations it will take those with discovery skills as well as delivery skills to implement the best of the best for our future.
    Thanks for openly contributing your time and efforts toward the collaboration it will take for that “best” to manifest. May we all benefit from the open sharing of these ideas! 

  12. This doesn’t just help with planning wind infrastructure — it can also be used to work out dispatch schedules. The accuracy isn’t perfect, of course, but it’s often sufficient to justify powering down some intermediate/peaking generators to allow more wind onto the grid (it can always beat them on price due to effectively zero marginal costs).

  13. The storage issue is an interesting one. Here in Scotland we have a “hollow mountain” dam at Cruachan in the Highlands. The water comes down as needed during the day and it can get up to peak in a matter of seconds. It’s then pumped back up the hill again at night using the excess from the nuclear power stations elsewhere on the grid.

    Worth a visit too, the actual engineering is quite awesome.

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