Mapping the wind

Perhaps the most awesome thing bouncing around the internet today is this real-time animated wind visualization map of the United States. At right is a screenshot of what it looks like, but you really need to see it in action to get the full effect.

The map is the creation of Fernanda Viegas and Martin Wattenberg, data visualization specialists who lead Google’s “Big Picture” team in Massachusetts. They use hourly wind data from the National Digital Forecast Database and create moving vectors on an animated map. The longer and faster-moving the lines, the stronger the wind speed.

A common – and obvious – criticism of wind energy is that wind farms can’t generate power when the wind isn’t blowing. You can’t simply replace a coal plant with a wind farm and carry on as usual.

But as the map helps illustrate, the wind is always blowing somewhere. For instance, as I’m writing this, it’s dead calm in Bismarck (according to the data), but go 100 miles east or west, and the winds are blowing around 15 mph – strong enough to spin a turbine.

As the grid becomes more sophisticated and power is dispatched at smaller intervals across longer distances, the question of intermittency – while still an important and complex one for grid operators to grapple with – is not the obstacle one might expect.

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