Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Mapping the Wind

Just as the oil industry is turning to increasingly-sophisticated mapping techniques to find new oil fields, the renewable-energy industry hopes maps will chart its future. 3TIER, a Seattle-based firm, announced today what it calls the first global map of wind-power resources.

This first map is free to the public; later, more detailed maps and number-crunching will be for sale to the industry. The idea: Better information on exactly where, when, and how strong the the wind blows will help promote wind power, especially in developing parts of the world which haven’t been charted as meticulously as the U.S. or Europe.

Mapping wind resources isn’t quite the same as petroleum’s seismic imaging: 3TIER didn’t discover any hidden North Dakotas ripe for the picking. But getting the right data on wind itself is at the crux of wind power’s development. Many wind farm developers test wind for one or two years at a potential site; those early-stage projects make up the bulk of any wind developer’s “pipeline”. 3TIER’s models aim to reveal wind resources over a decades-long time frame.

“The fuel may be free, but all the money in the world won’t buy you more of it,” says Kenneth Westrick, 3TIER’s founder and chief executive and an atmospheric scientist.

Wind power’s limitations came to the fore during last week’s Texas brownouts, caused by a sudden cold front that killed the wind.That puts a premium on siting for wind farms. By building sophisticated models of a given area’s wind potential at different times, and with a host of climactic variables, Mr. Westrick hopes to be able to give wind farm developers more bang for their buck (and make some of his own.)

Finding the most consistently windy spots during dry weather, for instance, can show sites that will still produce electricity even when local hydroelectric power is down. That would make the electricity produced by wind power more valuable to wind farm owners and the utlities that buy the juice.

His next challenge? Getting the models to anticipate how climate change itself can disrupt wind patterns.

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