By Steve Hamm
Over the past decade, the use of wind power has exploded–driven initially by demand in North America and Western Europe. But a variety of factors, including the economic slowdown in Europe and low-cost natural gas in the United States, have slowed wind adoption in developed economies. So now the emerging nations are driving growth. Now, aided in part by sophisticated weather science, those countries could play a huge role in blunting the effects of climate change.
In fact, a test project that’s being launched in China’s windy northern Hebei province could help clear the way for accelerated wind power adoption worldwide. Jibei Electricity Power Company, working with scientists from IBM Research-China, is using new technology to analyze weather and wind farm operations data in an effort to increase the reliability and economies of using wind energy on utility grids. “This is more than just business. It’s very important for society, for the whole of mankind,” says Henry Yu, a veteran of the Chinese utility industry who now works for IBM.
Today, coal provides about 80% of China’s electricity. Smog chokes the major Chinese cities and huge clouds of soot from the country’s coal-burning power plants have spread as far as the West Coast of the United States. The government is determined to do something about the situation—through a combination of subsidies and directives. As a result, last year China overtook the United States as the world’s largest user of wind power.
But China is just one of the emerging markets where wind energy is picking up speed. Brazil, Mexico, India, the Middle East and Africa are evaluating the technology and laying out wind farms. Mexico’s installed capacity for wind energy increased a whopping 143% last year, according to Wind Power Monthly. These countries are seeking energy diversification, economic stimulus and environmental payoffs.
Still, advocates of wind energy face tough challenges. Wind and solar energy are intermittent, so utilities have to integrate them with other energy sources in their grids. That’s tricky. Also, in most situations, fossil fuels remain less expensive than wind and solar–as long as you don’t account for their negative effects on the environment or public health. So, for wind energy to be price competitive, it has to be harvested as efficiently and effectively as possible.
This is where science can help. Think of these wind energy challenges as, essentially, business optimization problems. Utilities can attack them in the same way that other industries fine-tune everything from manufacturing supply chains to retailing distribution networks.
IBM Research scientists began applying some of their most sophisticated weather forecasting techniques to wind energy a couple of years ago. Their earliest projects include a wind farming initiative in Spain’s isolated Canary Islands. Also, IBM has supplied Vestas Wind Systems, the world’s largest manufacturer of wind power turbines, with powerful supercomputers the company is using to identify the optimal locations for wind farms and design the placement of individual turbines within the farms.
Now comes the engagement in China’s Hebei province. Sponsored by the State Grid Corporation of China, the Zhangbei 700MW demonstration project is the world’s largest renewable energy test bed– combining wind, solar, traditional sources, energy storage and electricity transmission infrastructure. The goal for IBM scientists there is to help Jibei planners integrate wind and solar energy sources into the grid in the most efficient way. The technology solution they have developed is called Hybrid Renewable Energy Forecasting, or HyRef for short.
On the wind side, sensors on the wind turbines monitor wind speed, temperature and direction. On the solar side, HyRef, uses weather modeling, advanced cloud imaging technology and cameras to track cloud movements in near real time. IBM’s data analysis technologies make it possible to predict the wind and solar effects for a wind farm location as far as one month in advance, or, closer in, in 15-minute intervals. That information can be combined with data about the operations of the entire grid to produce a super-efficient system.
When it comes to wind power, Brazil has the potential to be the next China. Its wind capacity grew by 67% last year, according to Wind Power Monthly. While Brazil’s wind industry faces challenges caused by poor transmission systems and difficulties in raising capital, individual states are mapping out ambitious wind projects. Bahia state, for instance, a semi-arid northern state, hopes to turn wind energy into the equivalent of Brazil’s recent deep ocean oil discoveries. It hopes to not only provide abundant amounts of electricity but to build an entire industry around wind energy.
That industry could create not just manufacturing and equipment installation jobs, but a large number of jobs requiring advanced degrees. “This could create demand for a skilled workforce to do the simulation, wind forecasting and wind farm design,” says Ulisses Mello, director of IBM Research-Brazil. “All of that a could snowball, creating a knowledge-based economy.”
A lot of elements have to fall into place for wind energy to fulfill its tremendous potential. The sluggish global economy and volatile energy markets are both wild cards. But, worldwide, governments, university researchers and businesses have gotten behind it. And, once again, the emerging economies have the opportunity to leapfrog the more developed ones in their use of the newest technologies. Competitive juices are flowing–geopolitically. And, in this case, that’s a good thing for everybody.