How much wind could a wind farm farm? Web tool estimates renewable potential

renewable energy
What’s the wind energy potential of Anchorage, Alaska? What’s the solar energy potential of your backyard?

These are just some of the questions answered by Renewables.ninja, an interactive web tool that estimates the amount of wind and solar energy that could be generated at specific locations around the world. What began as chore grew into a vocation. Now the resource is available for free online.

If necessity is the mother of invention then urgency is its uncle. Climate-conscious scientists Dr. Stefan Pfenninger and Dr. Iain Staffell felt both of these forces when they developed Renewables.ninja.

“Back in 2014 both Iain and myself realized that we needed hourly data on what wind farms and (solar) PV panels are producing all across Europe for our research,” Pfenninger of ETH Zürich told Digital Trends. “There are commercial providers of such data, which large project developers use, but they are not affordable for us academics. So we spent a lot of time building our own simulations and validating them by comparing them to power production data from real wind and solar plants.”

“There are commercial providers of data, which large project developers use, but they are not affordable for us academics.”

Staffel and Pfennigener weren’t alone — their peers in academia and at NGOs faced similar issues gaining access to cheap and reliable data on wind and solar energy production. They gathered publicly available data from sources like NASA and the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts, and began to develop a comprehensive predictive resource to save others time.

“It was a fortuitous combination of circumstances,” Pfenninger said. “We realized that we could collaborate to get both wind and PV done and, thanks to my past experience working with web applications, I felt confident that I could get a web application up and running that would let others run our simulations on demand.”

In the web tool, users can input dates and exact coordinates or select a location on the map. They then choose metrics for either wind or solar energy, including the height and model of turbines, and the angular tilt of panels. After a test run, graphs depict output and capacity throughout the year.

wind turbines

By compiling the data and running studies themselves, Staffel and Pfenninger found that the current average capacity of European wind farms floats just over 24 percent. This figure is acceptable, thinks Staffell, who lectures on sustainable energy systems at Imperial College London, given that varying degrees of windiness throughout the year mean farms can generate 100 percent of their capacity about one quarter of the time. But it isn’t ideal.

To inch nearer to full-time full capacity, manufacturers have begun building taller turbines with bigger blades that stretch upwards and outwards to tap into higher wind speeds. They’re also moving developments to regions with stronger winds, such as further out to sea. With these developments, the researchers estimate Europe’s average capacity could increase to 31 percent.

Staffel and Pfenninger published a paper detailing their wind energy findings last week in the journal Energy.

“It was a fortuitous combination of circumstances.”

But after compiling the data, developing the web tool, and publishing their study, the scientists were left with one baffling question. “How come nobody looked into the validity and accuracy of these models?” Staffel asked.

“We found that the NASA weather data over- and under-estimates wind speeds by up to 50 percent across Europe,” he said. “And previous researchers had just used this kind of data as-is without testing it first.” He notes that a few influential papers have been published using this data, calling into question the validity of the studies themselves. “Admittedly it has only become possible with a lot of effort on compiling historic outputs,” he added, “but it just goes to show how important the scientific method of testing your theory against reality is.”

Still, with wind and solar energy already undercutting conventional power stations across the globe, the researchers are optimistic about the future of renewable energy. Last year, Costa Rica ran on 99 percent renewable energy. In May, the U.K. generated more solar than coal energy for the first time and, last month, the country approved the development of the world’s largest wind farm off the its north-eastern coast. Meanwhile, the U.S. is set to open its first offshore wind farm in October.

The biggest obstacles for renewables won’t be engineering though, said Staffel, but social and political blocks. Sure, the U.S. will soon launch its first offshore wind farm but many advocates would ask, What’s taken so long? Critics often claim wind farms are expensive, unsightly, or unreliable.

“The engineering challenges, such as how to deal with intermittent power output, are much easier than the social and political challenges from having to support expensive pre-commercial technologies,” he said.

These ventures are becoming for profitable though and investors are catching wind. “We are now moving to a world where renewables make straight business sense in more and more countries,” Staffel said.

So, what is the wind energy potential of Anchorage, Alaska? The average current capacity is about 25 percent, according to Renewables.ninja. Newer, taller turbines could mean an increase of 10 percent.

As for the solar energy potential of your backyard — you’ll have to figure that one out yourself.

Mobile

Rekindled yet again, Nokia’s next-gen phones offer more than just nostalgia

HMD Global, a startup that designs and builds Nokia Android smartphones, wants to put the Nokia brand name back “where it belongs.” It helps that it’s made up of ex-Nokia employees. We go behind the scenes to see how HMD formed.
Home Theater

The best movies on Netflix in December, from 'Buster Scruggs’ to 'Roma'

Save yourself from hours wasted scrolling through Netflix's massive library by checking out our picks for the streamer's best movies available right now, whether you're into explosive action, witty humor, or anything else.
Emerging Tech

Earth’s magnetic field is shifting, vital map can’t be updated due to shutdown

The Earth's magnetic field is moving, effecting navigation systems of all kinds. A model of the field should have been good until its scheduled update in 2020, however, it has moved so quickly that an update is required much sooner.
Emerging Tech

Scientists debate mysterious flash of light in space, known as ‘The Cow’

On June 16, 2018 there was an unusual flash in the sky which puzzled astronomers around the world. NASA researchers have been collecting data on the event and have shared two competing theories for what could have caused it.
Emerging Tech

Brightest quasar ever seen discovered by Hubble, may be star-producing machine

The brightest quasar even seen has been observed with the Hubble Space Telescope using a technique called strong gravitational lensing. The quasar is enormously energetic and may be producing thousands of stars per year.
Emerging Tech

Watch China’s moon mission touch down on the planet’s far side

Video has been shared of a lander's-eye view of China's Chang'e 4 mission touching down in the Von Kármán Crater on the far side of the moon. The craft captured footage of the descent with a camera which was attached to the probe.
Emerging Tech

SpaceX nails its first launch and landing of 2019, but job cuts loom

SpaceX has nailed its first launch and landing of 2019 with a mission that deployed more satellites for Virginia-based Iridium Communications. But the success was soured somewhat by reports of upcoming job losses at the company.
Emerging Tech

The best 3D printers for 2019

On the hunt for a new 3D printer? We've got your back. Whether you're a beginner or a seasoned veteran, this list of the best 3D printers has what you're looking for.
Emerging Tech

The enormous ‘Flying Bum’ moves toward a commercial design

A prototype of the world's largest aircraft is being retired as the company behind it prepares to build a production model. The new Airlander 10, also known as the "Flying Bum," could be ready for commercial use by 2025.
Emerging Tech

Face-scanning A.I. can help doctors spot unusual genetic disorders

Facial recognition can unlock your phone. Could it also be used to identify whether a person has a rare genetic disorder, based on their facial features? New research suggests it can.
Emerging Tech

Lasers and bovine breathalyzer help determine how much methane cows produce

Cow farts and belches don't sound like catastrophic threats, but they contribute to the massive amounts of methane in the atmosphere. Recently, scientists set out to establish the numbers.
Emerging Tech

Researchers discover a way to make 3D printing 100 times faster using light

Researchers at the University of Michigan have invented a new method of 3D printing which is up to 100 times faster than conventional 3D-printing processes. Here's how it works and why it could prove a game-changer for 3D printing.
Emerging Tech

Why wait? Here are some CES 2019 gadgets you can buy right now

Companies come to CES to wow us with their cutting edge technology, but only a few products are slated to hit the market right away. Here is our list of the best CES 2019 tech you can buy right now.
Emerging Tech

Drones: New rules could soon allow flights over people and at night

With commercial operators in mind, the U.S. government is looking to loosen restrictions on drone flights with a set of proposals that would allow the machines greater freedom to fly over populated areas and also at night.