Predicting the Unpredictable

Are you a weather junky? I am. After all, I make plans, dress and tend my garden around what’s happening outside. While utilities have always used weather forecasts as part of their operations, our energy future is becoming increasingly more dependent on predicting the weather in a high-tech, sophisticated kind of way that goes beyond my backyard barometer and rain gauge.

Accurate Forecasts Save Money

We (Xcel Energy) often touts that we are the nation’s No. 1 wind energy provider (according to the American Wind Energy Association). This means that more than other utilities, we are finding ways to squeeze as much energy as possible from every turbine on our system. The fact is, better weather forecasting is one key to further developing wind technology as a more affordable, efficient energy resource for our customers.

We first wrote about this highly detailed forecasting system last March, and in October, our company formally took the system over from the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), which helped us develop it further. Since we began working with NCAR in 2009, the system has proven to be 35 percent more accurate than previous methods. This improvement resulted in savings of about $6 million in fuel costs.

According to Eric Pierce, managing director of energy trading/commercial operations for Xcel Energy, “This new forecasting system will enable us to harness wind far more effectively while saving millions of dollars for our customers.” As an employee and a customer, this sounds good to me.

Efficiency = $

Today we don’t have a cost-effective way to store large amounts of energy on our system – regardless of how it’s generated. Energy produced must immediately be consumed. If we can more accurately manage our system to power down coal or natural gas plants to make way for anticipated wind energy, we save fuel. But, if the wind doesn’t blow as anticipated, we may not be able to increase production at coal or natural gas plants quickly enough, forcing us to buy costly power on the spot market. Accurate forecasts are essential to improve our system operations and see cost savings.

Forecasting wind around turbines is challenging because landscape features in specific locations, such as hills and trees, can reshape the wind speed and direction and cause turbulence in ways that may greatly influence the amount of energy a turbine produces. Also, most forecasting models are designed to provide information about winds at ground level rather than at 200 feet where turbine hubs are located.

To generate these area- and turbine-specific forecasts, the NCAR system incorporates observations of current atmospheric conditions from a variety of sources, including satellites, aircraft, weather radars, ground-based weather stations, and sensors on the wind turbines themselves.

While we are officially operating the system, we plan to continue working with NCAR to make refinements and further improve accuracy.

Benefits for All

We are fortunate to operate in states with excellent wind energy resources – Colorado, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Texas and New Mexico. In general, this type of detailed forecasting will help manufacturers and operators across the country improve the ability to harness wind blowing at different speeds and directions and in other locations.

Article by Pam Butler, appearing courtesy Xcel Energy Blog.

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One comment on “Predicting the Unpredictable


Xcel: why did you bring a huge 750 MW coal plant online in late 2010 if you are so concerned about the weather? Why did you spend $2-3 million to STOP AMendment 37, the initial Renewable Energy Standard in Colorado? Why are you kick out intervener Leslie Glustrom from PUC dockets if you ‘care’ so much? Leslie is a citizen who actually works for the PUBLIC’s interest, not a huge for-profit company like Xcel. Finally, although you spent nearly $1 MILLION to defeat Boulder’s municipalization effort — 10 times what the proponents spent — you lost.


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