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