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Smart Wind and Solar Power

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Technology Review identifies 10 breakthrough technologies that are true milestones that will matter for years to come. One, using big data and artificial intelligence to forecast wind and solar power, makes it much easier and cost effective to integrate intermittent sources into the electricity grid.
The May/June 2014 issue of Technology Review highlights how this breakthrough technology enabled Xcel Energy, one of the country's largest utilities, to make an about-face from its previous opposition to renewable energy to embracing it and installing more wind power than any other U. S. utility, as well as calling for increasing the share of renewables in its energy mix to 30% or greater. This shift in Xcel's position has been made possible because of the ultra-accurate forecasting of wind resources by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) using supercomputers and artificial intelligence to process large amounts of weather and atmospheric data. NCAR is developing similar ultra-accurate forecasting technology for solar as well. The ultra-accurate forecasts for intermittent renewable sources of power such as wind and solar are truly groundbreaking because they reduce the need for operating expensive fast-response back-up plants, thus significantly lowering the cost of renewables to utilities such as Xcel Energy (and hence the about-face).

Dealing with the intermittency of renewables such as wind and solar powered electricity has long been a factor in limiting their acceptance at utility scale. While the article primarily focusses on how Xcel Energy has been able to use NCAR's greatly improved forecasts to expand the share of renewables in its mix, the implication for large electricity users to directly source renewables is also extremely favorable. End-users have historically been penalized by transmission grid operators for the intermittency of renewables to the tune of up to 20% of their delivered costs, thereby inhibiting direct sourcing to some extent. The new forecasting technology significantly reduces this penalty, thus making direct or indirect delivery of off-site utility scale renewable electricity a more attractive option for large end-users of electricity.


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