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Bitter row erupts in forecasting business -- Commercial forecasting not good enough says government lab

American wind meteorological consulting firms are accusing a public sector laboratory of unfair practices after the government-owned lab secured a major contract from one of the country's biggest buyers of wind power. But the lab, the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), argues that it is merely picking up where private industry has failed.

The row erupted after Minnesota-based Xcel Energy, the largest utility buyer of wind power in the US, chose NCAR to conduct its system-wide weather forecasts. The laboratory is to provide the utility with detailed, localised weather forecasts so Xcel can best co-ordinate the variability of wind power production with its other resources. The federal government's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) will help by developing formulas to calculate the energy generated by wind farms in different wind conditions.

From the private sector, three of the wind power industry's leading energy meteorology consultancies -- AWS Truewind, Windlogics and 3Tier -- say NCAR's arrival on the scene is unfair competition and deny claims that they do not offer the same level of service as now being provided by NCAR and NREL.

Private industry is already providing wind and wind farm output forecasts in other areas of the US, says Bruce Bailey of AWS Truewind. "We see it as first an infringement of the private sector, the public sector taking services already available. We're puzzled by it, we can't see from what we hear of anything novel that's being brought to the table."

Perception

The three firms sent the government laboratories a formal complaint and are also concerned over a false perception it may cast about private sector wind plant forecasting. "This project sets up the perception that the private sector can't get it right. US forecasters are world class. Technically speaking, we're as good as European firms. There's just no technical inferiority," says Bailey.

William Mahoney, the NCAR program director overseeing the project, says wind plant operators and the utility industry "made it very clear that off the shelf capabilities that they have been using from the commercial sector are not meeting their needs." He adds: "We had serious discussions trying to understand what that meant and the bottom line came down to the forecasting skill wasn't good enough. There wasn't enough statistical technology being explored."

Mahoney refutes the charge of unfair competition, saying that NCAR's not-for-profit mission is one of new research and technology transfer to the wider public and private sector. "We won't compete in the market for any technology that's available commercially," he says. "We don't go after any kind of work that doesn't involve fresh research or that involves repeating or reapplying technology for the same purpose because there's nothing interesting in it for us," says Mahoney.

The new areas of study with this project that Mahoney says have not been commercialised yet involve very high-resolution modelling and data simulation. It will draw on work done for the US defence department where NCAR generated ultra high-resolution weather prediction for fluid dispersion modelling that takes advantage of highly localised data sets for short-term forecasting. The work will use "data sets that haven't been used before and develop verification techniques for wind energy forecasting that are more robust and produce more info back to utilities in the field," says Mahoney.

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