Research for Renewable Energy Development

Solar energy farm.

Concentrating solar power plant.
Photo credit: Kramer Junction Company, NREL PIX 11070. (Reprinted courtesy of the American Solar Energy Society.)

Meeting the nation's energy needs, maintaining a strong economy, and reducing emissions of greenhouse gases are inextricable goals. Solutions must include the development of carbon-free energy sources that are environmentally sustainable and economically viable. Renewable energy sources including wind, solar, and biomass/biofuels are the most rapidly growing energy sectors within the U.S. and hold the promise of becoming a significant portion of the total U.S. energy supply.

Renewable energy sources depend on improved atmospheric information to be economically viable and successfully integrated into the U.S. electrical grid system. Further, proposed ocean-based renewable energy technologies, including hydrokinetic energy and ocean thermal energy conversion, will require research and information about ocean conditions and processes before they can be developed. NOAA can contribute to the development and integration of renewable-energy sources into the U.S. energy system through better atmospheric and oceanic observations, models, forecasts, and analysis tools.

There is considerable uncertainty about the impacts of renewable energy farms on the environment, weather and climate across a range of spatial and temporal scales. Similarly, the affects of natural variability and human-caused climate change on renewable energy potential need to be assessed. NOAA is uniquely qualified to perform the research needed and to develop products that address these areas to help inform decision makers.

Key meteorological questions must be answered to accelerate the deployment of renewable energy in the U.S.

U.S. Energy Flows 2009 U.S. Energy Flows 2030

Current energy and forecasts: Current fossil-fuel and nuclear sources of electricity do not depend on meteorological factors or forecasts.

The energy mix of 2030 will include more renewable-energy sources (e.g. wind, solar, biofuels, waves, currents, and hydroelectric), will depend on meteorological factors and can be optimized by improved forecasts. T=temperature, RH=relative humidity. Arrow thickness represents relative contribution to the energy mix.

  • The striking difference between today's U.S. energy system and that shown for circa 2030 is the much greater dependence on renewable energy production and the dependence of this production on processes in the atmosphere and ocean.
  • The development of large numbers of wind and solar energy farms depends on a better understanding of the spatial and temporal distribution of wind and solar resources.
  • The integration of wind and solar energy onto the electrical grid and demands for transmission and storage would require very accurate wind and cloud forecasts.
  • The generation of energy from ocean resources requires accurate mapping and prediction of waves and currents, and the production of biomass depends on seasonal drought and temperature forecasts.
  • On longer time scales, inter-annual and decadal climate variability will affect each of these renewable resources.
  • The deployment of large numbers of wind and solar energy is anticipated to affect the environment, as well as local and regional weather and climate, in as-yet undetermined ways.
  • Unlike the present situation, in the future NOAA's observations, models, and forecasts should be woven into the fabric of the energy system and could play a key role in how it is designed and operated.

NOAA has compelling opportunities to provide the data, improved weather forecasts, data assimilation, enhanced modeling, and data visualization and distribution to accelerate integration of renewable energy into the U.S. electric grid to promote energy independence and to reduce emission of greenhouse gases from fossil fuels, thereby mitigating climate change. Improvements in NOAA's atmospheric observations, models, and forecasts could be used to save the U.S. many billions of dollars. The renewable energy industry will lead to creation of millions of new jobs that cannot be exported.

Current Shortfalls of Meteorological Forecasting for Renewable Energy

  • Numerical Weather Prediction (NWP) models have not been optimized to address the needs of the wind-energy industry.
  • Little is known of the skill of operational and research models at predicting winds in the wind-turbine layer (20 m to 200 m) simply because there are few high-quality measurement available at this height.
  • Small errors in forecast speed can result in very large errors in forecast energy production, because wind energy generation is proportional to the cube of the wind speed.
  • The spatial scales of current NWP models are inadequate for wind-energy forecast needs.
  • For solar energy, there are few ground-based observations with which to evaluate current and future solar potential and even fewer measurements of the direct solar beam useful for concentrating solar power.
  • Solar energy model results have a 20% uncertainty on short time scales and 7% on annual averages.
  • Large-scale land-use change, for instance in the creation of algae ponds for oil production, could have unknown impacts on regional climate.

NOAA has the expertise to address these problems.

Examples of Support NOAA Could Provide to Advance Wind Energy

Wind turbines.
  • Improve quantitative forecast skill for mesoscale processes and local flows in current weather forecast models by improving representation of physical processes at wind-turbine heights.
  • Create a national reference database populated with data that have been verified for accuracy that can be used to evaluate current and future wind resources and to study boundary layer processes, effects of complex terrain, low level jets, and other phenomena.
  • Develop a wind-energy testbed to improve fundamental understanding of mesoscale and local flows that affect wind farm operations.
  • Develop 1-km National Weather Model capable of predicting weather and wind features as small as one to a few kilometers over the entire U.S. with forecasts updated hourly.
  • Develop and deploy new instruments, observational strategies, and data distribution and visualization tools.
  • Develop seasonal forecast products that address regional wind energy potential in the United States.

Examples of Support NOAA Could Provide to Advance Solar Energy

Household photovoltaics.

Photo credit: Kramer Junction Company, NREL PIX 11070. Reprinted courtesy of the American Solar Energy Society.

  • Create a national reference database populated with data that have been verified for accuracy that can be used to help evaluate current and future solar resources for spatial and temporal variability.
  • Enhance ability to infer direct solar radiation at the surface from satellite data using these validation data (noted above).
  • Improve cloud forecasts in models and fundamental understanding of clouds.
  • Develop and validate surface solar radiation forecast products (direct and total beam).
  • Assimilate current aerosol and surface reflectance data into forecast models.
  • Develop seasonal forecast products that address regional solar energy potential in the United States.
  • Incorporate impacts of solar storms, especially at the peak of the 11-year solar cycle, on the electric grid, especially as the grid is modernized into the Smart Grid.

Examples of Support NOAA Could Provide to Address the Impacts of Renewable Energy on the Environment and the Impacts of Climate on Renewable Energy

  • Increase understanding of climatic variability of renewable energy resources (wind, solar, and precipitation) using historical data (observational networks and the North American Regional Reanalysis - NARR) to quantify the past variability of renewable energy resources from diurnal to seasonal, annual, and decadal time scales.
  • Improve understanding of the co-variability of wind, solar, and precipitation resources together with energy demand, using direct observations and NARR.
  • Provide joint-probability distributions of resources and demand on regional scales, including examination of spatial relationships that may exist allowing for a balance of low resource in one region to be balanced with a higher resource in a different region. For example, does increased cloudiness in Arizona correspond to higher winds in the great plains?.
  • Characterize the frequency, amplitude and duration of meteorological conditions leading to worst-case situations of high energy demand (heat waves or cold waves) and low renewable energy resources.
  • Determine if there is a link between the climatic variability of renewable resources and larger scale climate drivers, especially those involving the oceans, such as the El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO), Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO), Atlantic Multi-decadal Oscillation (AMO), North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO), etc.
  • Determine the predictability of renewable energy resources on seasonal or longer time scales based on the current state of ENSO, PDO, and other climate drivers.
  • Determine if climate models have skill at addressing long term projections of renewable energy resources and provide improvements to obtain greater accuracy at simulating renewable energy sources.
  • Assess the skill of weather models at forecasting renewable energy resources on week-two time scales.
  • Assess the effects of deployment of large numbers of renewable energy farms on a national or regional basis.
  • Develop improved model physical parameterization schemes for weather and climate models, particularly enhancing skill at reproducing boundary layer structure and clouds.
  • Provide products that inform decision makers about the future impacts of climate change on renewable energy systems, including products to help optimize the operational effectiveness of these systems.
  • Quantify links between space weather and the smart grid of the future.

Ocean-based Technologies of the Future

Ocean wind turbine.

Enhancing observations and understanding of ocean conditions and processes will facilitate development of possible future renewable energy technologies that aim to generate electricity from ocean currents, tides, and heat content.

  • Offshore wind turbines harness kinetic energy of moving air over oceans and convert it to electricity. Currently there are no offshore wind facilities in the U.S. There are permit applications offshore Nantucket Island (MA) and Long Island (NY) in federal waters and off Texas in state waters. There are other proposals offshore (state and/or federal waters) for Rhode Island, New Jersey and Delaware.
  • Hydrokinetic (wave, current, tidal) refers to technologies for wave, ocean current and in-stream tidal energy. Hydrokinetic projects are in early stages with a small number of prototypes and demonstration units, nationally and internationally.
  • Ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC) uses the difference in temperature between warm ocean surface waters and cold deep-ocean waters to produce electricity. No OTEC plants have been built, but there is increasing interest.

NOAA is responsible for assessing the potential effects on marine trust resources and existing coastal and ocean uses of concern, and response and restoration if trust resources are harmed.

Monitoring our Ecosystems

Coral reef.

NOAA's mission is to understand and predict changes in Earth's environment and conserve and manage coastal and marine resources to meet our Nation's economic, social, and environmental needs. NOAA's data, scientific research, and technical products are instrumental in advancing the environmentally-sound use of the marine environment by both traditional and evolving new technologies.

As the primary Federal agency tasked with stewardship over the oceans, NOAA is well placed and prepared to provide critical weather, climate, and oceanographic information and to evaluate inevitable environmental trade-offs in order to promote responsible energy development while minimizing the adverse impacts on our oceans and global climate.

NOAA, through its many mandates, seeks to reduce use-conflicts, conserve resources, and work with managers and decision-makers to address an increase in energy facility siting. NOAA is responsible for assessing the potential effects on trust resources and existing coastal and ocean uses of concern, and response and restoration if trust resources are harmed. Federal agencies, states, and the energy sector are increasingly requesting NOAA expertise in coastal policy and management, fisheries science and management, federal consistency, mediation, scientific and technical advice, and mapping capabilities.

Intelligent Grid Usage

Electric car.

The proposed U.S. Smart Grid is supposed to replace the antiquated current U.S. electrical grid. The Department of Energy describes the U.S. Smart Grid as a 21st century U.S. electric system connecting everyone to abundant, affordable, clean, efficient, and reliable electric power any time, anywhere. These advancements will be achieved by modernizing the electric grid with information-age technologies, such as microprocessors, communications, advanced computing, and information technologies. The Smart Grid will dramatically increase the efficiency of electricity usage and rely heavily on carbon-free renewable energy.

In each person's home will be a Smart Black Box (SBB), a home's individual energy dashboard. The SSB integrates the controls and interoperability of all the electrical items and appliances in the home, e.g., phones, computers, internet access, heating, cooling, washer-dryer, televisions, music stations, and plug-in electric hybrid cars and their storage batteries. In each device is a microchip that can inform the utility directly or through the SBB the energy level at which it is operating, receiving instructions from the homeowner or utility about when it should operate and at what power level, and tell the utility when it wants to purchase or sell electricity. This two-way communication facilitates flattening of load peaks and raising of load valleys, thereby reducing the need for the wasteful spinning reserves.

Plug-in electric hybrid cars, also called "Rolling Energy Storage Units", will help utilities meet peak demand and keep their load profiles relatively flat by allowing owners to sell to utility companies electricity generated by wind or sun and stored in their car batteries. Another component of the Smart Grid is that electricity users will increasingly rely on meteorology-based forecasts of short-term, future electricity prices to make decisions on when to purchase electricity.

The full implications of the Smart Grid, regarding how meteorology affects the operation of the electric grid, are still evolving. Nevertheless, it is clear that more users will be impacted by meteorology, e.g., home users of electricity will make decisions based, at least in part, on weather forecasts. NOAA's capabilities to improve short-term forecasts of wind and solar radiation could support the wide-scale use of renewable energy by the future U.S. Smart Grid. Additionally, radiation anomalies in the ionosphere, in the form of solar storms, affect the electric grid. NOAA's forecasting of these solar storms can help grid operators prepare for these events to mitigate their impacts.


Renewable Energy Program Contacts - 303-497-4487