Business Maps The Way Wind Blows - InformationWeek

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Business Maps The Way Wind Blows

A coalition of consulting firms is using parallel computing to map wind flows locally and regionally. Locating wind-turbine farms could be made more accurate.

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP)--To find out where the wind blows, you could walk around with your finger in the air or build a bunch of wind socks.

If you're TrueWind Solutions, you're likely to line up 100 computers to sample 15 years' worth of weather data.

The Albany-based partnership makes wind maps for companies seeking the best spots to erect electricity-generating wind turbines. Such maps can be crucial for determining how much electricity--and how many dollars--turbines will produce.

While the wind energy market is small right now, TrueWind has established itself in an industry many believe is due for a growth spurt. Engineers are designing turbines that can harness the wind more efficiently and advocates hope ping-ponging oil and natural gas prices will make renewable power sources more attractive.

"We are just bullish on wind and we see it continuing to grow," said Bruce Bailey, one of the company's principals.

Bailey is a meteorologist whose Albany office is appropriately windmill themed--shelf-sized models include the sort painted by Van Gogh and the modern machines that resemble giant airplane propellers.

He is president of AWS Scientific, a meteorological consulting firm that teamed up with atmospheric modelers at Meso Inc. in Troy, N.Y., and Brower and Co. environmental consultants in Andover, Mass., to create the TrueWind partnership in 1998.

Wind mapping goes back several decades, but it worked best in its early days on a large scale, said Robert Thresher, director of the wind technology center at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo.

"They missed some fairly large regions where there were good winds," said Thresher.

TrueWind hit on the idea of using parallel computing--that is, solving a problem with the simultaneous use of multiple computers--to crunch a crushing load of meteorological data to figure out wind patterns.

TrueWind considers all sorts of historical atmospheric data on a given area, from temperature to moisture levels to more generalized wind measurements. Year-round data is randomly sampled over a 15-year period through a process Bailey likens to polling.

Contours of the land are represented by topographical maps. Satellite images provide important details about land cover such as whether a piece of land is covered by trees or crops.

"We let the model then say, 'Given these larger conditions, what must be happening on the small scale based on what we know about physics and the topography and the surface characteristics?'" said physicist Michael Brower, the founder of Brower and Co.

TrueWind's computer model is designed to give a high-resolution picture--down to about two-thirds of a mile in their large-area MesoMaps and around 330 feet for "micrositing" maps of smaller areas.

The data--much of it culled from such federal agencies as the National Weather Service--is fed into more than 100 parallel computer processors. But even with that sort of firepower, it can take weeks to produce a map.

Thresher calls TrueWind the leader among wind mappers in the United States, but noted there are other dominant players in Europe.

TrueWind does about $1.5 million annually in sales, Bailey said. The company's clients include not only generators, but agencies like the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, which makes its New York map publicly accessible through TrueWind's site.

In New England, Northeast Utilities (NU) divvied the $300,000 cost of a wind map with Connecticut Clean Energy Fund and the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative.

"Right now, we're just trying to stimulate development of wind and other sorts of renewable energy sources in New England just for in the future when it's going to be a requirement," utility spokesman Al Lara said.

Windmills account for only about a third of 1 percent of the electricity produced nationally. While turbines have been cropping up slower than some proponents predicted, New York alone has about a half-dozen wind farm projects on the drawing board, including a proposed 400-megawatt project off the shore of Long Island.

Bailey estimates that 80 percent of TrueWind's business is in mapping and the rest in the related field of wind forecasting. TrueWind is starting a contract with the California Independent System Operator for hourly forecasts of the wind projects in that state.

TrueWind has mapped out 30 states so far, as well as Brazil, Sri Lanka and other countries under a contract with the United Nations.

"We want to map the world in the next two to three years," Bailey said.

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