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Weather variability impact on renewable energy production

July 2nd, 2024
Offshore turbine

As a significant amount of renewable output fluctuation is related to the weather when it comes to generating energy, the two are tightly linked. Much of renewable energy relies on harnessing the power of nature, whether it’s wind, the sun, or water. However, nature is a tameable force, and so when the weather is unpredictable, is the amount of energy that can be created. 

Exploring the relationship between weather and renewable energy

One thing is for certain: weather affects the amount of power that can be generated:

Damage of renewable infrastructure thanks to weather

Construction, upgrades and general wear and tear can be severely affected by the weather. Arrays such as wind turbines, hydro or wave technology can all be situated on the coast – one of the least habitable areas with extreme weather conditions. Coastal storm damage can be some of the most dramatic damage to renewable plants. Wave or storm damage to cables can stop the transmission of power back from the renewable asset, while increased rainfall can cause flooding. 

Human safety requirements 

When the weather is bad, the safety of those maintaining the equipment needs to be taken into account. If conditions are dangerous, less maintenance can be done to arrays during poor weather periods. This means equipment can degrade more quickly and requires more maintenance long-term.

Heat can restrict the energy generated to cool the population   Periods of intense heat could affect the output of a renewable array, which could mean that during heatwaves air conditioning technology powered by purely renewable energy could fail to keep humans cool. 

How Solar and Wind Power are Affected by Weather Patterns

The impact of weather on solar energy

  • Overheating: in extreme weather conditions, too much heat can overheat the solar panels. Currently, silicon solar panels can only withstand 23 degrees, so if the planet heats up further, resulting in higher temperatures, safer alternatives will have to be developed. 

  • Cloud cover: clouds, whether natural, e.g. rain clouds, or man-made like aerosol or pollution, can impact solar panels ability to generate energy. To operate at full capacity, solar panels need 400 to 800 nanometre wavelength range.            

  • Seasons: solar panels’ peak generation periods are during the late spring, summer and early autumn months. In the winter periods, when the days are shorter and cloudier, solar generation drops to around an eighth of what would be generated on a typical June day.

The impact of weather on wind energy 

  • Wind droughts: wind droughts happen when there are large scale cases of high pressure, resulting in lack of wind and impacting the wind speed energy production and the amount of energy that a wind turbine can generate.

  • Jet stream impact: we are becoming more familiar with the impact of the jet stream on factors like aviation travel, but the jet stream can also impact wind energy. The jet stream can in fact reduce wind droughts during the winter months or increase wind droughts during the summer, both negatively or positively impacting wind energy production.

  • Storms: during the summer months, fewer storms occur, which results in less wind, meaning a drop in energy generation. However, with climate change, summers have become wetter and stormier, so this could be open to change. 

Mitigating the impact of adverse weather on renewable sources & future technologies

  • Spreading out renewable plants across a wider area: creating greater resilience to changing weather is key to making renewable energy more withstanding of poor weather conditions. Spreading out connected arrays over a wider area mean areas with differing weather conditions are targeted, rather than one area of poor weather conditions. 

  • Using storage for low energy periods: as renewable energy becomes more widespread, the demand for storage solutions for renewable energy generated is decreasing. However, storage would allow for energy generated during high production periods to be stored and used.

  • Building more arrays than are actually required: one way to mitigate adverse weather conditions is to build more arrays than are actually required to generate the level of energy required. This means if there is a shortfall, there are more arrays to make up for low amounts of energy generation. 

  • Predicting future weather conditions: one method of predicting potential output of a new renewable plant is to use data from previous plant performance, which is called renewable energy planning or forecasting, which we’ll go into in more depth below. 

Weather predictions and renewable energy planning

Weather forecasting is one of the best ways to plan for renewable generation - this involves studying historical weather patterns and designing future plants around this predicted output. We use historical data to map out wind arrays but they’re not affective at predicting future affects of climate change.

It’s a method that can provide good forecasting, but it’s difficult to factor in climate change as the future is so unpredictable. Factors like an increase in renewable energy could impact carbon emissions, slowing down the effect of climate change, but it still needs to be taken into account. One solution is to collect and analyse data over longer periods.

Case study - California: reducing water use during droughts by switching to renewables 

  • While the impact of weather affects renewable energy generation, for drought-ridden states, it may be the only option. In California, USA, fracking remains a primary source of energy generation - the state is turning to renewables as it begins to affect water supply:

  • Fracking is a very water intensive process, when a drought is declared, fracking puts a huge strain on an already buckling water supply.

  • Solar energy has been cited as the solution, as droughts equal less clouds, which result in increased levels of solar energy generation. 

  • Solar panels don’t require the same type of water-intensive cooling as fracking, easing the demand on water supplies during droughts. 

  • If heat levels continue to increase, it’s vital we develop solar panels that can withstand higher temperatures if they’re to be relied on as a primary source during droughts.

Understand how weather patterns affect energy markets