Renewable energy

What does the renewable energy industry need from weather and climate science?

18 November 2011

Dr Ian Mays MBE, Chief Executive Officer of renewable energy company, RES

The global renewable energy industry has grown dramatically over the last few decades and recently the rate of installation of renewable energy capacity has outstripped that of either fossil fuels or nuclear power. In this guest article, Dr Ian Mays, CEO of RES, explains more about what the global renewable energy industry needs from weather and climate science.

The growth in the renewable energy industry has been driven primarily by two factors: the growing consensus that CO2 emissions from fossil fuels are resulting in global warming, and the threat of future energy shortages as supplies of rapidly depleting fossil fuels fail to keep up with demand due to economic development and population growth. These factors also coincide with the need to replace much of the existing conventional generation capacity in the developed world that has now been in operation for 30 to 40 years or more.

An important consequence of the expected huge growth in renewable energy capacity is the need for a correspondingly huge amount of capital investment. This will be a considerable challenge given global economic conditions prevailing since the financial crisis of 2008. In Europe alone, it is estimated that some €508bn will need to be invested in wind, solar, biomass and geothermal capacity between 2011 and 2020, as part of €2.3tn of overall investment in low carbon technologies. A key factor determining the cost and availability of this capital, whether as equity or debt, is the predictability of the energy output during project operation.

The energy produced by almost all renewable energy technologies is wholly dependent on the weather. Wind and wave power depend on the speed, direction and duration of the wind. Solar power, whether photovoltaic or thermal, depends on the intensity and duration of solar irradiation. Hydro power depends on the rate and duration of precipitation, while biomass power ultimately depends on suitable overall weather conditions for growing the energy crops used as fuel. Weather and climate is thus a common denominator for all of these increasingly important sources of renewable energy.

To determine the expected energy yield of a renewable power source, calculations are usually performed that correlate measurements at a project site to historical, long-term weather data (of the wind speed, solar irradiation and so forth). These calculations predict both the long term average energy yield and the extent of annual and seasonal variations from this. They provide us with a best estimate against which the financial case for investment is made. They cannot, of course, be a guarantee and probabilities are used in the financial analysis. Improving our ability to predict future trends in inter-annual variability and long term averages is where the renewable energy industry looks to weather and climate science for help.

If we can predict future energy yields and the magnitude of shorter term variation (for example on seasonal and annual timescales) with greater certainty through climate and weather models, we will help give investors and banks the confidence which will maximise the capital available to build renewable energy projects and minimise its cost. The result is more security for our energy future, the realisation of low carbon energy to help fight climate change and lower prices for renewable energy. Who benefits? All of us.

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