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Balancing the power grid is an art—or at least a scientific study in chaos—and the Energy Department is hoping wind energy can take a greater role in the act. Yet, the intermittency of wind—sometimes it’s blowing, sometimes it’s not—makes adding it smoothly to the nation’s electrical grid a challenge. If wind energy were to become more predictable, use of this clean, renewable power source stands to increase. 

As nice as it would be, controlling the wind eludes us. It is possible, however, to get better at predicting it, which is what the Energy Department’s Wind Forecast Improvement Project (WFIP) seeks to accomplish. Under the second phase of this project (WFIP 2), some of the world’s best scientists are working together to gain a better understanding of the physical processes that drive the wind in complex terrain. Researchers from several Energy Department national laboratories are collaborating with partners from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and Vaisala (whose subcontractors include the University of Colorado, the University of Notre Dame, and the National Center for Atmospheric Research).

Recently, researchers at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, along with NOAA, added three new radar wind profilers—one every 150 miles—along the Oregon and Washington coast. These profilers project continuous radio signals nearly 5 miles into the atmosphere. By measuring changes in the radio waves caused by air movement, the speed and direction of oncoming wind patterns is determined.

Photo of men working on a large square grid that has radar dishes on each of its four sides.]
Each profiler site also includes a radio acoustic sounding system that uses sound waves to measure temperature changes. For part of each hour, the radar tracks the sound waves to measure their speed. As the speed of sound varies depending on the temperature of the air, the system is able to detect how temperature changes with height.

By measuring speeds and temperatures of air blowing into the West Coast and feeding this information in real time to weather prediction models operated by NOAA, the profilers give the models a more accurate starting point for the forecasts. These models then provide wind farm operators and utilities with more accurate wind energy forecasts a few hours to a day ahead. Such forecast improvements allow wind farms to be more efficient and pave the way for greater integration of wind energy into the grid. If a utility company knows in advance a wind front will coincide with peak hours, it can call on wind farm operators to power up turbines and scale back on baseload power sources.

In addition to supporting weather forecasts, the data are also being used by WFIP 2 researchers to investigate local variations in turbine-height winds as air flows over the Cascade Mountains and through the large wind farms in eastern Oregon. Data from these new profilers are combined with data from four additional profilers along the California coast. With the West Coast lined with profiles where weather systems move from, the accuracy of weather information flowing into wind models and forecasting will improve.

For more information on the Wind Program’s resource assessment and characterization activities, visit the resource assessment and characterization page