Xcel wind power forecast system boosts wind turbines production

The National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) has developed a highly detailed wind energy forecasting system with Xcel Energy, enabling the utility to capture energy from turbines far more effectively and at lower cost. The system, which Xcel Energy formally took over last month, saves ratepayers several million dollars yearly.

By issuing forecasts that are 35 percent more accurate than previous forecasting methods, the system enables utility operators to constantly anticipate the amount of energy produced by wind farms across Xcel Energy’s service area. As a result, the utility can make critical decisions about saving money by powering down traditional coal and natural gas plants when possible while reliably meeting the needs of its customers.

"The goal of this project is to make it more affordable for Xcel Energy to bring on more wind energy," says William Mahoney, an NCAR program director overseeing the project. "Xcel Energy has been very proactive in adding wind energy to its system, but one of the major obstacles is the difficulty in predicting when and how strongly winds will blow at the locations of turbines. Every fraction that we can improve the forecasts results in real savings."

The system, which has become increasingly accurate since NCAR entered into a contract with Xcel Energy to begin developing it in 2009, saved the utility $6 million in 2010. Future savings will vary from year to year, depending on such factors as prices of other energy sources and the amount of wind in a given year.

The wind energy forecasting system relies on a suite of tools, including highly detailed observations of atmospheric conditions and an ensemble of cutting-edge computer models. It issues frequent high-resolution wind energy forecasts, updated with new information every 15 minutes, for wind farm sites.

It is used for wind farms in states served by Xcel Energy, including Colorado, Minnesota, New Mexico, Texas, and Wisconsin.

"Wind is challenging because of the impacts it can have on our operations due to its intermittency," says Eric Pierce, Xcel Energy’s managing director of energy trading/commercial operations. "This new forecasting system will enable us to harness wind far more effectively while saving millions of dollars for our customers. We are very pleased to use this as a key tool toward building a diverse portfolio."