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Viral ‘wind map’ aims to promote alternative energy

By John Stodder

Two media artists moonlighting from Google’s “Big Picture” visualization lab have created a “wind map” to show where, when and how powerfully the wind blows, in real time, all over the lower 48 states.

The project is intended to promote wind energy. Fernanda Viégas and Martin Wattenberg, the data engineers/artists who created it, wrote: “An invisible, ancient source of energy surrounds us – energy that powered the first explorations of the world, and that may be a key to the future.”

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But the wind map also demonstrates the limits of wind energy. Given the celebration of this animation on “green” sites such as Climate Progress and the Huff Post Green page, that is an ironic result.

The wind map is a “living portrait” of current wind conditions, powered by the National Weather Service’s National Digital Forecast Database of near-term forecasts, downloaded once per hour and time-stamped on the page. The map shows where the wind is — and where it isn’t.

A frequent visitor to the site would likely notice that the strongest and most consistent wind is in the Great Plains from the Dakotas to West Texas. However, the Great Plains are sparsely populated, curbing the value of the area’s wind-energy potential. The most populous areas of the country, along the Eastern Seaboard and the West Coast, experience strong winds only intermittently, according to the wind map.

Although the map shows that the wind blows stronger at night, peak demand for electricity is during the day for most of the year. The wind map demonstrates how much fluctuation there is in wind speeds.

Utilities need to maintain “high-efficiency, conventional power plants on standby to take over when the wind is not blowing,” because of these fluctuations, according to Michael Weinhold, chief technology officer for Siemens Energy.

These varying properties of wind — its fickleness, its nocturnal visitations, the harsh winds that blow up clouds of dust in the Midwest, the gentle breezes that barely wave a flag in the Old South — are what inspire poets and songwriters. Donovan, the 1960s pop star, compared the futility of unrequited love to trying to “catch the wind.”

Utility executives, endeavoring to comply with renewable fuel mandates by adding wind power to their portfolios, know what Donovan means.

The tantalizing wind map illustrates that there is plenty of wind to catch, but that a wind-powered future remains elusive.

John Stodder is the roving web editor at The Dolan Co.

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