Can A Better Weather Forecast Produce More Power?

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What’s the greatest invention of all time? Some will say fire, but I’ll disagree (we learned to harness fire; we didn’t create it).  Others will say the wheel and it’s tough to disagree with that. Some will say the Bottoms Up Draft Beer Dispensing System (when I searched for ‘Greatest invention of all time,’ that’s what turned up at the top of the list). However, if you ask the National Academy of Engineering to limit that question to the 20th Century, their answer is electrification, followed by the automobile, then the airplane, then water supply and distribution. Electrification — would you agree?

The power grid, including renewable energy sources such as wind and solar. Image: Wikipedia

[I’ll wait a few moments while you finish reading the story about the Bottoms Up Beer Dispensing System.]

Electricity is something we don’t think about any more. It’s not always there, but when we flick that switch we’re happy with the result 99.9999% of the time (or more). What made me start thinking about this was two things. First was a story by Andy Boyd in an episode of the University of Houston’s “Engines of Our Ingenuity.”  Though I don’t know Andy, my friend Dr. John Leinhard created the “Engines” radio series in 1988 and they’ve amassed nearly 2,800 episodes heard daily on Public Radio stations across the country. I try not to miss these stories about “the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them” (that’s the Engines’ tagline).

Andy’s story (episode 2713) was about the power grid and how it used to be that electricity flowed through the grid only one way: from it to you. Now however, it’s also flowing the other way (from you to it) with a process called vehicle to grid technology, among others. In a nutshell, electricity doesn’t necessarily flow to your electric car when you plug it in. Instead, your car communicates with the grid in a “valley filling/peak shaving” process that may actually flow electricity from your car’s batteries back to the grid depending on demand.

Grid operators balance power generated with power consumed in rooms like this. Click for larger image. Photo:

The second thing I thought about was my solar panels. I’ve written about my solar panels before, but one of the not-so-obvious advantages of solar panels is that when they produce an excess of electricity, that excess can flow from my house back into the grid. According to the latest images from Google I’m still the only one in my neighborhood with solar panels, so I’ll guess the input back into the grid from renewable energy in my area is not much of a concern. But it’s a much larger concern in other areas of the country where renewable energy is more developed and abundant.

Which brings me back to the #1 Engineering Achievement of the 20th Century: Electrification. Electrification being #1 with the NAE is only partly because it’s such a vast system. A larger part of the reason is the high-wire act performed each minute of each hour of each day: Meeting demand with available supply. Electricity is generated on an as-needed basis; power companies don’t build up a surplus then distribute it when and where needed. Grid operators have to balance what is needed with what is available. If more electricity is required then more generation resources need to be brought online to meet the demand. Bringing additional resources online is expensive, but not meeting demand results in brownouts, rolling blackouts, at times, blackouts.

My two-week electrical usage. Red is consumed, green is solar generated, green-above-red is surplus that can be fed back to the grid. Click for larger image. Image: Dave Gorham

If the grid operators know they have a nuclear plant here, a coal plant there, a natural gas plant down the road and a hydroelectric facility on the other side of the bridge that are all producing electricity, they know their baseline of production. What do they do when my solar panels and Bob’s Chevy Volt start pushing our excess back into the grid? Can they/must they take the natural gas facility offline?

Even more complicated: What do the friendly grid people do when they come to rely on my panels, my neighbors’ panels and wind turbines and the predicted masses of electric vehicles (EVs) that may all come to feed the grid? Will the EVs be a predictable source of “renewable” energy? What if clouds block my solar panels for a week? What if a stagnant high pressure system shuts off the wind turbines for a few days? Is renewable energy a dependable power resource?

Weather across the country adds an ongoing complexity to the electricity that powers your house. Click for larger image. Image: ImpactWeather StormWatch

As an ImpactWeather meteorologist I know the value of an accurate weather forecast and what a cloudy day forecast vs. a sunny day forecast does to our utility clients. Cloudy skies in the winter block sunshine (aka: solar radiation) from reaching the Earth so folks like you and me turn on our heaters. A sunny day in the summertime lets the thermometer rise another 10 degrees causing folks like you and me to turn on our air conditioners. But cloudy days also limit my solar production and, of course, my system produces no solar power overnight. As renewable energy becomes more abundant it will become more relied upon, but it will be no more dependable day after day than it is today, which makes an accurate weather forecast come to mean more than just rain/no rain for the family picnic. Increasingly, an accurate weather forecast will come to mean dollars and cents more dollars in your pocket.

Smart technology and smart meters will help mitigate many demand vs. supply problems, but when one considers the  electrification of this country (and now the world) and the fine line that is walked every day — and will continue to be walked in the future — by  those who operate and supply the power grid, I’ll add my vote for electrification to those already cast by the National Academy of Engineering.



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