Renewable energy output

 By Benjamin Plackett

Scientsts have created an online tool to estimate the energy that can be generated by wind or solar farms at any location on Earth. The tool is called and the idea is to make it easier to predict renewable output for both researchers and industry…

(Cover photo by

Wind power has been on the rise throughout the world, but especially in Europe. It is estimated that across the continent there are perhaps over 87,000 wind turbines in operation as of 2015, which is approximately 13 percent of electricity production—that’s more than nuclear energy’s contribution to national grids.

But new simulations from scientists using decades of data have shown significant inaccuracies in such estimations of how much energy is actually produced by wind. Some earlier projections were overly generous, while others have underrated wind’s contribution to electricity production.

That’s important, say the researchers, because the world is investing in wind.

In some European countries, such as Denmark, there are already enough turbines to theoretically satisfy the national demand for power under the best case scenario: peak wind speed coupled with low consumer use. But the wind revolution isn’t limited to Europe. China’s installed wind energy capacity is the largest in the world and still growing. Economists have also advised Russia to adopt a more wind-heavy energy portfolio to counter the economic woes it is experiencing in large part to the currently low oil price.

SEE MORE: China’s renewables revolution by Nicholas Newman


Stefan Pfenninger, a researcher in ETH Zürich’s Department of Environmental Systems Science, predicts Europe could see its wind capacity rise by a third. The United Kingdom, for example, could achieve a capacity close to 40 percent and Germany 30 percent.

“Countries adjoining the North Sea should experience particularly strong growth in the near future,” said Pfenninger in a release. But there remains a significant fly in the ointment to wind power’s seemingly successful story.

Unlike nuclear power, wind is problematic to predict, which makes it harder to rely on—it is still too often seen as a supplemental energy source rather than a true alternative. It’s more complicated than merely looking at the weather forecast.

Both scientists and energy suppliers therefore need to come up with better ways to simulate wind output to accurately anticipate wind power’s contribution at any given point in time, says Pfenninger.

Some scientists have tried to tackle this challenge by drawing on data and simulations from global weather and meteorological reports. But this method over simplifies the reality and ignores other variables that are also very important for wind energy—not least the geography of the land. How hilly or flat an area is can drastically alter the potential to harness wind power.

SEE MORE: Europe’s new energy mix by Amanda Saint

NASA image acquired April 18 - October 23, 2012 This new image of the Earth at night is a composite assembled from data acquired by the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (Suomi NPP) satellite over nine days in April 2012 and thirteen days in October 2012. It took 312 orbits and 2.5 terabytes of data to get a clear shot of every parcel of Earth’s land surface and islands. The nighttime view of Earth in visible light was made possible by the “day-night band” of the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite. VIIRS detects light in a range of wavelengths from green to near-infrared and uses filtering techniques to observe dim signals such as gas flares, auroras, wildfires, city lights, and reflected moonlight. In this case, auroras, fires, and other stray light have been removed to emphasize the city lights. Named for satellite meteorology pioneer Verner Suomi, NPP flies over any given point on Earth’s surface twice each day at roughly 1:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. The spacecraft flies 824 kilometers (512 miles) above the surface in a polar orbit, circling the planet about 14 times a day. Suomi NPP sends its data once per orbit to a ground station in Svalbard, Norway, and continuously to local direct broadcast users distributed around the world. The mission is managed by NASA with operational support from NOAA and its Joint Polar Satellite System, which manages the satellite's ground system. NASA Earth Observatory image by Robert Simmon, using Suomi NPP VIIRS data provided courtesy of Chris Elvidge (NOAA National Geophysical Data Center). Suomi NPP is the result of a partnership between NASA, NOAA, and the Department of Defense. Caption by Mike Carlowicz. Instrument: Suomi NPP - VIIRS Credit: NASA Earth Observatory Click here to view all of the  Earth at Night 2012 images  Click here to  read more  about this image   NASA image use policy. NASA Goddard Space Flight Center enables NASA’s mission through four scientific endeavors: Earth Science, Heliophysics, Solar System Exploration, and Astrophysics. Goddard plays a leading role in NASA’s accomplishments by contributing compelling scientific knowledge to advance the Agency’s mission. Follow us on Twitter Like us on Facebook Find us on Instagram

That’s why Pfenninger and his colleague at Imperial College, Iain Staffell, decided to take a more thorough and vigorous approach to tackle the problem with an aim to produce what is possibly the most accurate plan of potential and actual wind energy output in Europe. They corrected the over-simplifications of previous models.

For their calculations, the team took the topology of a wind turbine’s surrounding area into account and they also factored in the economies of scale that larger wind farms enjoy. To allow governments, energy operators and other researchers to use their improved projections, Pfenninger and Staffell have created a free and open source platform.

The app is called ““— users input their location and it will spit back the daily and monthly averages of energy output for a wind farm in that area.

The app’s readings are different because the researchers say previous efforts to estimate output were sometimes too optimistic and other times too pessimistic. The uncorrected models overestimated wind’s potential by as much as 50 percent in the North West of Europe. Meanwhile they underestimated it by 30 percent in South Europe.

Research such as this means that energy suppliers and governments can be more confident in their energy predictions for wind farms — they can make more informed decisions about where to build future turbines. It also allows them to be smarter in knowing how much they can rely on wind as a contribution to their national grids.

about the author
Benjamin Plackett
I’m a journalist based in London. I report on all things science, tech, and health for a number of different publications. My work has been published by The Daily Dot, Inside Science and CNN among others. I earned my M.A. in Journalism at New York University and my B.Sci in Biology from Imperial College, London.