Goal is to help solar energy providers optimize power generation.
Boulder, Colo.—To help solar power plants use energy from the sun more effectively, the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) is launching a three-year pilot project to provide detailed forecasts on incoming energy from the sun for solar power providers.
These forecasts will be issued every 15 minutes and provide accurate predictions of solar energy for a 36-hour period.
“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,” said Sue Ellen Haupt, director of NCAR’s Weather Systems and Assessment Program and lead researcher on the project.
Funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, the US$4.1 million endeavour will focus on generating accurate and detailed predictions of cloud formations and atmospheric particles that can affect the amount of energy reaching the earth.
“These detailed cloud and irradiance forecasts are a vital step in using more energy from the sun,” explained Haupt.
Accurately predicting cloud coverage is already a challenge for meterologists and technological breakthroughs in this field are a must to optimize solar power use.
It’s not cost-effective to store large amounts of solar power, NCAR said, thus solar power must be used immediately.
If a utility is anticipating solar energy and clouds roll in unexpectedly, it could be left with the costly option of buying power on the spot market if it has already shut down its other power generating facilities that use coal or gas.
“Improving forecasts for renewable energy from the sun produces a major return on investment for society,” said Thomas Bogdan, president of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, which manages NCAR. “By helping utilities produce energy more efficiently from the sun, we can make this market more cost competitive.”
In 2011, NCAR, in partnership with Xcel Energy, designed a wind energy forecasting system that saved customers US$6 million in one year.
NCAR is currently working to expand its prediction capabilities to help wind energy providers predict wind energy potential anywhere in the world.