Meteorology and Climatology of Wind and Solar Droughts

We have a paper out on a field of increasing importance in meteorology: The analysis of synoptic-scale extreme reductions in wind and solar power energy resources (i.e., wind and solar “droughts”).

If you like talks more than papers here is a talk I gave to Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on the research.

More details are below but first, some background: Two broad trends make it so that our society’s energy consumption is being impacted progressively more by the weather: 1) Increasingly more and more of society’s energy consumption is coming via electricity (e.g., the electrification of transportation and water/space heating). 2) Increasingly more and more of that electricity is being generated from weather-dependent resources like wind and solar power.

Thus, as wind and solar power resources become more indispensable for society, a full scientific understanding of their droughts may approach the importance of understanding droughts in other resources like precipitation.

This concern has inspired a lot of work on the general topic of the (co)variability of wind and solar power resources but less work has been done on the atmospheric circulation patterns responsible for generating synoptic-scale reductions in wind and solar power resources, both independent of each other and in conjunction.

These extreme weather events have been occurring ‘under the radar’ since the dawn of meteorology but they have not received significant scientific attention because of their historical lack of impact. However, this situation is now rapidly changing as market forces and legal mandates increase the penetration of wind and solar power generation in electricity grids around the world.

This is exemplified in the recent situation in Europe where electricity prices spiked in part because of reduced wind power supply.

In our study, we focus on the meteorological causes of these extreme events over a case study region of western North America with an emphasis on synoptic-scale atmospheric circulations.

We found that perhaps not surprisingly, wind droughts are typically associated with high-pressure systems and solar droughts are typically associated with low-pressure systems and thus wind and solar resources should be anti-correlated at synoptic weather scales.

This along with the fact that wind and solar resources are anticorrelated at the seasonal timescale supports the notion that including both wind and solar power in an energy resource portfolio reduces risk in the same way that diversifying a stock portfolio does.

More specifically, wind drought events over the western US were associated with a thermal mid-level ridge (warm-core high) centered over British Columbia & solar drought events were associated with a thermal mid-level trough (cold core low) off of the west coast of North America.

Furthermore, we found that the synoptic-dynamic meteorology of these phenomena was interpretable through classic Quasi-Geostrophic Theory. This is evidence that these droughts are manifestations of well-known and well-understood weather patterns and are not the result of some unexpected or exotic mechanism. That hopefully means that wind and solar droughts should be as forecastable as any synoptic weather phenomena on daily to seasonal timescales and it suggests that they should be represented reasonably well by courser resolution climate models.

We also find some indication that both wind droughts and solar droughts are slightly associated with positive El Niño and/or positive PDO situations, especially in their most extreme manifestations (Supp Fig. 17 j,k,l).

Finally, this research also supports the notion that there is value in pooling renewable energy resources over areas large enough to encompass the full wavelength of typical Rossby Waves which implies that, in the US, there are significant benefits in moving towards a continental scale “super grid” connected by high voltage transmission.

For more on this research topic see here: If you are interested in collaborating on research along these lines please feel free to contact me!

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1 Response to Meteorology and Climatology of Wind and Solar Droughts

  1. Pingback: Reliability Goal of a Renewable-Dependent Electricity System – Pragmatic Environmentalist of New York

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