skip navigation
Support KUOW
Listen to News


question mark


Northwest Scientists Aim To Predict Wind More Accurately

Anna King


TOUCHET, Wash. – Some say you can’t tame the wind, but two Northwest scientists are giving it a try. On the eastern end of the Oregon-Washington border they’ve deployed high-tech wind measuring instruments. They’re hoping to better predict squalls, breezes and gusts in order to squeeze more efficiency out of wind farms.


There’s a lot of information about how wind behaves high up in the atmosphere. And scientists can pretty well describe wind about 30 feet from the ground. But it’s that middle zone – about 350 feet up. That’s where wind turbines are. And research there is still pretty young.

Rob Newsom and Larry Berg are atmospheric scientists with Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. Berg says being able to predict how that wind behaves is essential to make wind farms work well on the overall grid.

Larry Berg: “The better that we can make our power forecast the more that we can use our wind energy and integrate that onto the grid and use less fossil fuel powered energy.”

Berg and Newsom keep their instruments up a steep and winding country road in northeast Oregon. We’re just a few miles from Touchet, Washington.

Rob Newsom: “OK, we’re at the top of the hill approaching the profilers. The sound you hear in the background is the Sodar.”

Sodar is a device that acts like a big speaker, it sends out a spectrum of sound waves up into the air about 1,500 feet. Then that sound hits tiny particles, moisture and temperature differences in the air. The sound waves reflect back. And in that way, Newsom and Berg measure the wind.

The two scientists are also using microwaves to track the wind on this bluff. They’ll crunch all that raw real-time data to make a prediction model to figure out what the wind is going to do hours, even days ahead.

Scott Winner with the Bonneville Power Administration says the research might help managers like him balance the energy on the grid more efficiently.

Scott Winner: “As we go into the future, and as our wind fleet grows and doubles in size over the next couple of years, the need for accurate forecasting is that much more important.”

Winner says wind farms are just a larger source of electricity than they used to be. And wind isn’t like a coal plant generating the same amount of power day after day.

Researcher Newsom says predicting the fickle wind won’t always be as hard.

Rob Newsom: “In twenty years wind forecasts at low levels like this are going to be improved significantly. I think we’re going to have efficient and relatively cheap ways of storing the energy out of these devices.”

A lot of wind power companies are trying to come up with their own wind prediction models. But they don’t tend to share their data with competitors. This government-funded research will be available to all power companies. Newsom and Berg will be collecting data for about eight more months and then crunching the data for another year.

Copyright 2010 Northwest Public Radio

** Rob Newsom and Larry Berg helped collect audio for this report.

On the Web:

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory:

Bonneville Power Administration - Wind Power: