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Matt Brewer
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Matt Brewer

Improving wind forecasts to increase reliance on renewable energy

by Sarah Fesenmyer (NOAA Research Communications)

One of the most significant stumbling blocks to integrating renewable, clean wind energy onto the electricity power grid is lack of precise short-term wind forecasts. NOAA meteorologists like Matt Brewer, Ph.D., with the Air Resources Laboratory (ARL), are tackling this problem, developing the science necessary for the country to increase reliance on renewable energy.  

Brewer grew up watching the weather.  By age six he was avidly tracking tropical hurricanes on the weather channel.  In his hometown of Vancouver, Washington, only one winter snowstorm came through in a typical year; but when it did, Brewer monitored the snow predictions intently and compared them to actual snowfall in his backyard.

While in college in Utah, Brewer realized that he could turn his recreational interest in the weather into a career, and he switched his major to atmospheric science with the University of Utah. He tried out broadcast meteorology with an internship with a local television news station. Brewer quickly realized that the competitive world of television weather forecasting left much less time for his passion for investigating and steadily increasing our understanding of the atmosphere, weather, and climate.

Setting up a met tower

Setting up a met tower

Brewer (right) and colleagues Tom Strong (center) and Shane Beard set up a meteorological tower in Boardman, Oregon. (Credit: Kirk Clawson)

Brewer turned to a career as a research meteorologist. “I really enjoy science and making sense of weather phenomena,” says Brewer, and this comes through in his clear and thoughtful way of explaining complex regional weather patterns.

While pursuing his Ph.D. at the University of Washington, Brewer described regional and local wind patterns and their influences on phenomena such as heat waves and explosive wildfire growth. He then analyzed how these weather events might change under climate change scenarios.

“We have a decent feel for climate change at a global scale,” says Brewer. “The important thing now is to downscale global climate models to predict what will happen at the regional level.” For example, Brewer’s research showed that for the Pacific Northwest, while heat extremes are generally likely to increase under global climate change, this increase might be tempered by weakening wind patterns and atmospheric conditions associated with heat waves.    

This past year Brewer joined NOAA’s ARL in Idaho Falls, Idaho, as part of a team of meteorologists and engineers conducting atmospheric research to protect human health and our environment. He brings his experience modeling wind patterns to the Wind Forecast Improvement Project 2 (WFIP 2), a substantial collaboration between government scientists, university researchers, and private partners to provide better wind forecasts to the wind power industry.

Wind power, which produces no greenhouse gases, could provide a much larger portion of the country’s electricity than its current share of less than 5 percent. But the wind industry first needs highly accurate short-term wind forecasts in order to more efficiently integrate wind energy onto the power grid.

Wind turbines

Wind turbines

(Credit: Will Von Dauster)

“Averaged over time, NOAA’s current wind forecast models predict wind levels fairly accurately across the country,” explains Brewer.  “What has been harder to forecast is the exact timing of sudden changes in wind conditions, called ramp-up or ramp-down events.”  If a wind farm experiences a ramp-up event sooner than forecast, the utility manager must take quick and costly measures to avoid overloading the grid with an unexpected surge of power.

Last fall Brewer worked with colleagues to put a variety of wind instrumentation out all over the Columbia River Gorge area. “We will compare the data from these instruments to NOAA’s wind forecast model, and then use the data to make the forecast model better,” explains Brewer. Brewer spends most of his time as a researcher concentrating on his computer screens, so he enjoyed a rare chance for field work along the dry and sunny canyon of the Columbia River in eastern Oregon and Washington.

The wind research Brewer and his colleagues are conducting is highly practical. NOAA and University of Colorado Boulder researchers recently concluded that with improvements in transmission infrastructure, wind and solar energy could feasibly supply most of the nation’s electricity. Brewer explains that anything that makes wind energy cheaper, such as more accurate short-term wind forecasts, will help move us towards this goal of increased reliance on renewable energy resources.  

Brewer and his wife have four young children, and being an involved father takes up almost all of his free time outside of work, with an occasional moment to dive into an armchair stack of non-fiction. He is focused on passing along his love of understanding the weather to his kids. He is teaching them how to track developments in NOAA’s online forecasts, how to note when the weather prediction models succeed and when they fail, and how to enjoy science.

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    Oceanic and Atmospheric Research (OAR) - or "NOAA Research" - provides the research foundation for understanding the complex systems that support our planet. Working in partnership with other organizational units of the NOAA, a bureau of the Department of Commerce, NOAA Research enables better forecasts, earlier warnings for natural disasters, and a greater understanding of the Earth. Our role is to provide unbiased science to better manage the environment, nationally, and globally.


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