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March 29th, 2008
Solar and Wind Energy Resource Assessment (SWERA)

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img_solarAfter a succession of recent reports on climate change, almost everyone agrees that cleaner forms of energy to power the global economy are a good idea. Few would disagree that renewable energy sources such as the wind and sun are desirable options to this cleaner energy path.

Knowledge is Literally Power
Indeed, solar, wind, geothermal, biomass, hydro and wave resources have the potential to meet several times the world’s present and future energy demands. The catch is that these resources are not evenly distributed, and can vary greatly within even small geographic regions.

Quantifying the renewable energy resources of a region is necessary before they can be harnessed. Without timely and reliable assessments of the size and scale of a particular renewable energy resource, investors cannot determine whether a project will be viable, especially their potential return on investment.

High quality assessments of renewable energy resources also allow national and state energy agencies to establish long-term and scientifically robust sustainable energy options and policies, including plans and policies by environmental agencies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

{sidebar id=96}  In the past, assessments of wind energy meant prospecting for initial sites through local geographical knowledge (such as ridge lines with vegetation affected by wind) and then placing anemometers on tall masts for months or years at a time. This was not only expensive, it also meant the data could only be used for a small region, as other sites even a few hundred metres away could have very different wind patterns. Collecting solar data was a little easier due to its more uniform nature in a limited area.

Most developed countries have meteorological institutions that carry out at least some of these functions, as well as utilities and other institutions that can help industry at least get started to develop renewable energy projects. This was the case in California during the 1980s when the state government funded a wind monitoring programme and put the results in the public domain, which kick started the wind energy industry there.

Developing countries, however, are generally not so fortunate. Weak national institutions and the lack of resources means the potential to expand their economies with clean energy is severely restricted.

Innovative Support
Enter SWERA, the Solar and Wind Energy Resource Assessment project. SWERA was launched in 2001 as a collaboration between 25 international institutions to develop the information tools needed to stimulate renewable energy projects. SWERA initially focused on major areas of thirteen developing countries across Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa and Asia, and was supported by the Global Environment Facility (GEF), with additional support by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), and the US National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA).
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“It struck us from the very beginning that countries need good information about their resources for sensible renewable energy policies in government and on the investment side,” said Mark Radka, chief of the Energy Branch in UNEP’s Division of Technology, Industry and Economics that oversees SWERA.

Radka added that SWERA took the “critical first step” for creating indigenous renewable enterprises by producing maps of each country’s solar and wind resources. Scientists at SWERA institutions, however, added new satellite data to the available terrestrial weather data. SWERA tapped the wind energy expertise of the Risø National Laboratory at the Technical University of Denmark and the solar expertise from the German Aerospace Center’s Institute of Technical Thermodynamics. SWERA also worked with country partners, local universities and government technical institutes to develop the assessments.

To produce solar maps, scientists used weather satellite imagery to infer a country’s resource. Wind maps were produced from high-resolution imagery and high-quality numerical models of wind flow over complex terrain. Creating maps with sufficient quality to be used for large-scale renewable energy applications was a principle SWERA goal, but another important accomplishment was creating a standard product from a range of institutions and techniques, combining solar and wind data from many different measuring instruments and techniques.

Part of the reason SWERA appealed to UNEP, said Radka, was that it gave the organization “a chance to bring together different schools of thought on using satellite-derived information collected mainly for weather purposes, and come up with a consistent way of using it, even if the satellite datasets are different.”

SWERA programme manager at UNEP, Daniel Puig, said the assessments were “eye-opening” for developing countries that didn’t have this information before, and is helping to accelerate and broaden interest in renewable energy in SWERA countries. One of SWERA’s strengths is making solar and wind data compatible with geographic information systems (GIS). This innovation by the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) arranged digital maps, satellite images, aerial photography, and other data representing an area’s attributes and characteristics into layers for GIS applications.

“GIS really helps organize the SWERA data,” said Tom Hamlin who overseas the technical aspects of SWERA. A SWERA analysis can tell users, for example, how many square kilometers of a region have a certain profile of wind strengths within a certain distance from transmission lines, roads and populated areas. From a project development perspective, this information is highly valuable and helps project developers gain confidence their projects will be successful and profitable.

{sidebar id=98} “This combination of renewable energy resource maps and data in print quality documents, online mapping, and standalone analysis forms a powerful decision support system for a broad range of clients, including energy planners and developers, policy makers, industry representatives, and investors,” says Hamlin.

The GIS work by SWERA has been integrated into a stand-alone, interactive application called the Geospatial Toolkit (GsT) customized for each country. The GsT has been tested and developed for use on the Windows 2000 and XP operating systems and can be downloaded from the SWERA website ( Toolkits have been created for 10 countries and 2 provinces.

SWERA has produced a range of solar and wind datasets and maps at better resolution than previously available. The renewable energy information provided through SWERA includes:

SWERA has supported informed decision-making and helped increase investor confidence in renewable energy projects. In Nicaragua, for example, project results prompted the Nicaraguan National Assembly to pass the 2004 Decree on Promotion of Wind Energy. SWERA efforts have often discovered more renewable energy potential than previously thought. An assessment for China, for example, found the country’s renewable energy potential was 50% greater than earlier estimates.

Puig said that one of SWERA’s strengths is the placement of critical solar and wind energy resource maps and data in the public domain. The SWERA archive is housed at the US Geological Survey’s Earth Resources and Observation Science Data Center in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, along with the GsT and other computer-based tools.

Expanding SWERA
Although the 13-nation pilot project ended in 2006, the SWERA program continues and is expanding geographically and adding data on geothermal and small-scale hydropower energy. Biomass resources may also be added in the future if funding can be found from governments, international financial institutions, users and others.

The expanded SWERA programme aims for an open architecture to include new countries and partners. UNEP is engaging development aid agencies, investors, and developers, in a combined effort to integrate renewable energy resource assessments into energy and development planning processes, as well as communicating to financiers the profitable investment opportunities offered by renewable energy projects.

“We’re branching out into other countries,” Puig said, “and going into some places where assessments have been conducted and the information exists, but the information needs to be organized and formatted it before entering the SWERA archive, even if it might not have been done under the original project.”

Datasets are coming in from Morocco and Tunisia, for example, and from work done by NREL in the Philippines and the Dominican Republic under funding from the US Agency for International Development.

As part of its geographic expansion, SWERA is also involved in a $15 billion effort announced in January by the government of Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates to fund renewable energy infrastructure and related projects in that country, the Middle East/North Africa region and globally. SWERA is mapping solar and wind energy resources in several countries of the Middle East and North Africa, including an assessment for a 100-megawatt solar concentrating system for electricity production and desalination.

Puig said SWERA helps to remove a major barrier for developing countries – understanding whether they have the resources to support a renewable energy initiative. “And it turns out that very often they have more renewable energy resources than they think they do.”

This article is presented by the Energy Branch, Division of Technology, Industry and Economics, United Nations Environment Programme  – Paris, France.

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