It’s clear that the entire energy sector is in the midst of a paradigm change, spurred by new technology, the need to reduce carbon dioxide and other pollutants to protect our environment, and changes in the economic picture of energy sources. We are now working toward high levels of renewable energy as a path to cleaner, more economic, and more equitable energy access. However, as renewable energy sources become more prevalent, so does the impact of their inherent variability. Using our knowledge of meteorology not only allows more economical and efficient integration, but also opens up a wealth of potential new ways to run our energy system and ways to transform our societies.
The Old Energy Paradigm
We all understand the old energy paradigm that focused on fossil fuels, with some hydroelectric, and eventually, nuclear sources. That paradigm reigned (and worked) for a couple of centuries while society and industrialization grew, fueled by the fossil resources. The result was that the countries and regions with sufficient resources, primarily fossil, industrialized more rapidly and became richer. The unequal distribution of the fossil resources led to inequities in the speed of industrial development. When one examines maps of the fossil resources, it becomes obvious why some countries, such as the United States, Canada, Russia, China, Middle East, Australia, and parts of Europe advanced at a faster pace than countries with few natural fossil resources. The most industrialized countries have substantially more fossil fuels than they use and have exported their fossil resources. These fossil locales also have become polluted from burning coal and oil in large quantities and we have contributed to global warming via release of CO2. Gaining access to energy resources has also spurred many international conflicts and wars. In many cases, the fossil resources fueled these conflicts or have become an important factor in them, as we see currently.
Energy also sets the stage for how societies develop. The preface to the International Renewable Energy (IRENA) SE4ALL report (SE4ALL 2014, p.4): “Energy is the golden thread that connects economic growth, increased social equity and an environment that allows the world to thrive. Energy enables and empowers. Touching on so many aspects of life, from job creation to economic development, from security concerns to the empowerment of women, energy lies at the heart of all countries’ core interests.” Thus, historically the location of the energy resources (fossil) determined not only the economy of a country or region but also the social equity paradigm.
The New Energy Paradigm
As we have come to realize the negative environmental and human health impacts of burning fossil fuels, we have put more effort into developing clean, renewable energy sources. In the past few decades the renewable resources, notably wind and solar power, have become prevalent, as new, efficient technologies have developed to bring the price down to where their costs have dipped below those of the fossil fuels. When one examines wind and solar resource maps, it is obvious that nearly every country and region has some blend of wind, solar, and hydroelectric resources. Thus, as we change the energy paradigm, a natural result is equalizing energy access. This change has the potential to alter world power dynamics.
NASA’s Blue Marble 2012 high-resolution satellite image of the Earth. The wind patterns and cloud images know no political boundaries.
Meteorology Knowledge is Critical to Move Forward with the New Paradigm
Of course the challenge with wind, solar, and hydro energy is that they are neither constant in time nor highly controllable due to the intermittent nature of weather. That is why the partnership between meteorologists and energy professionals has been critical to make this new paradigm a reality. As the capacity of wind and solar have grown, it has become increasingly necessary to predict the real time and day ahead availability of these energy sources. Maintenance planning relies on knowledge of weather in the coming weeks to months. Preparation for the next season is very weather dependent. Long-term planning for the next series of renewable power plants relies on climate information. Thus, forecasts are required at time periods including minutes, hours, days, seasons, and decades. Meteorologists have risen to the challenge and have developed techniques to hone these predictions to provide not only more accurate forecasts at all of these scales, but also to quantify the uncertainties. Working in concert with the energy professionals, methods have been developed to leverage these forecasts to optimize operation of these new energy systems (see the recent blog by John Zack: https://www.esig.energy/getting-the-maximum-value-from-operational-renewable-energy-forecasts/).
As we change the energy paradigm, how will the equalization of access to energy change the global power dynamic? How will it impact equity issues around the world? The atmosphere doesn’t recognize geographical boundaries and it is difficult to take away another country’s wind or solar resource. Even the distributed nature of the wind and solar plants add to energy security. It will be interesting to watch this evolution of global power dynamics as we learn to use our environment as the fuel for our energy, which powers our economies and leads to the evolution of productive, more equitable societies.
Sue Ellen Haupt
Senior Scientist and Deputy Director, Research Applications Laboratory
National Center for Atmospheric Research