June 12, 2012, 12:00 AM — That breeze you feel? It's more than just a pleasant sensation on your face.
We don't often think of it, but the wind represents the heating and cooling cycle of 5.5 quadrillion tons of air by a medium-sized star about eight light-minutes away. Heated air rises, and cooler air meanders, rushes, or otherwise moves in to fill the void.
While our atmosphere is fluid and dynamic, the shape of the land and the water over which the air moves is decidedly less so, which eventually creates patterns of wind and weather that can be predictable ... if you have enough data.
Knowing the wind patterns is more than being thorough about the weather. It's also critical to optimizing wind energy production, which is growing in global capacity by double-digit percentages each year.
According to the World Wind Energy Association, by the end of 2010, the power of the wind provided 430 terawatt-hours of electricity to the nations of the world, more than enough to completely power the United Kingdom, the sixth largest economy in the world.
While that sounds like a lot of power, it should be noted that, according to the same report, this also represents just 2.5 percent of global electricity demand. But statistics from The Wind Power Database show that the global capacity it tracks has grown an average of 29.2 percent annually since 1995. In five years, that could put wind power capacity at 1,548 terawatt-hours, or nine percent of current global demand.
Projections aside, there's a lot of energy to be had right now in wind energy, but like anything that depends on nature as a resource, there's also a lot of risk.
Hitting the target
If you look at the US Department of Energy's wind resources map, even the most casual observer can see that some areas of the country are better suited for wind energy production than others.
And to a large degree, many onshore wind farms are indeed located in the areas of larger wind potential. If you travel to western Indiana, you should expect to find a number of wind farms, and sure enough, there are many wind turbines dotting the flat western Indiana farmland.
But getting wind turbines to be hyper-efficient means more than just plunking a few down in a generally windy area, and raking in the power and the money. Companies, investors, and power consumers must know what to expect to the highest degree of certainty. Having a turbine under-perform can drastically reduce the return on investment in these multi-million dollar machines. The opposite is true, as well. Put a wind turbine in a windier area for which it was designed, and you will damage a turbine faster, sometimes catastrophically.
This is the challenge that faces the Danish turbine manufacturer Vestas Wind Systems A/S. The company has made and installed more than 43,000 land-based wind turbines in 66 nations since its inception in 1979. Vestas turbines are responsible for generating 90 terawatt-hours -- just over 20 percent -- of the world's wind power alone.
To help them achieve optimal wind turbine placement and better operational control and forecasting of the turbines once they are installed, Vestas has relied on its own wind library, which includes data from 35,000 global weather stations, as well as data that's incoming from its own turbines.