NCAR Powers Up Renewable Energy Forecasts

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The National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), building on a pioneering wind energy forecasting system that saved millions of dollars for Xcel Energy customers in eight states, has entered into a new agreement with the utility for even more sophisticated weather forecasts.

In the next two years, NCAR scientists and engineers will develop custom forecasting systems to predict sudden changes in wind, shut down turbines ahead of potentially damaging icing events, and even predict the amount of energy generated by private solar panels. The systems will be used by Xcel Energy control centers in Denver; Minneapolis; and Amarillo, Texas.

The cutting-edge forecasts will help Xcel Energy, and potentially other utilities, to provide reliable power to their customers and reduce costs while moving to greater use of wind and solar.

“This is pushing the state-of-the-art still further, using the latest science to enable Xcel Energy to generate energy from the atmosphere more effectively,” said NCAR program director Sue Ellen Haupt, who is overseeing the new project.

Xcel Energy officials say the more accurate forecasts are critical as they increase their use of renewable energy.

“The importance and value of accurate renewable energy generation forecasts increases with the size of our renewable energy generation portfolio,” said Ben Fowke, chairman, president and CEO of Xcel Energy. “Xcel Energy has been the largest utility provider of wind energy for the last nine years and we are continuing to grow our renewable energy portfolio.”

The new project represents the latest venture by NCAR into renewable energy. In addition to the lab’s earlier work with Xcel Energy, NCAR is also spearheading a three-year, nationwide project to create unprecedented, 36-hour forecasts of incoming energy from the Sun for solar energy power plants.

“By creating more detailed and accurate forecasts of wind and sun, we can produce a major return on investment for utilities,” said Thomas Bogdan, president of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, which manages NCAR on behalf of the National Science Foundation. “This type of cutting-edge research helps make renewable energy more cost competitive.”

Xcel Energy has been utilizing increasing amounts of energy from renewable sources, especially wind. But this shift means relying on resources that are challenging to predict and manage.

Energy generated by a wind turbine, solar panel, or any other source must be promptly consumed because large amounts of electricity cannot be stored in a cost-effective manner.

If an electric utility powers down a coal or natural gas facility in anticipation of wind-driven energy, those plants may not be able to power up fast enough should the winds fail to blow. The only option in such a scenario is to buy energy on the spot market, which can be very costly.

In order to help utility managers anticipate wind energy more reliably, NCAR began designing a wind energy prediction system for Xcel Energy in 2009 that saved the utility’s customers more than $6 million in 2010 alone. The specialized system relies on a suite of tools, including highly detailed observations of atmospheric conditions, an ensemble of powerful computer models, and artificial intelligence techniques to issue high-resolution forecasts.

For more information, visit ncar.ucar.edu or xcelenergy.com