3Tier: Remapping the World for Renewable Energy, From a Supercomputer Hothouse in Seattle

There’s a small company in downtown Seattle called 3Tier Group that has a goal of no less than “Remapping the World” for alternative energy. T. Boone Pickens, the billionaire Texas oilman, is such a big fan, he used 3Tier’s maps to draw a bold conclusion-that the United States has the potential to be “the Saudi Arabia of Wind.”

3Tier might sound a little New-Agey in its goals, maybe a little pie-in-the-sky in a world where Exxon Mobil has enough money in the bank ($36.7 billion on Sept. 30) to bury all U.S. cleantech startups. So I decided to check it out personally, meeting with Kenneth Westrick, the founder and CEO, at his 21st floor offices in the Westin Building in downtown Seattle. Westrick, an atmospheric scientist with a master’s from the University of Washington, greeted me with a boisterous handshake. He was wearing a long brown leather jacket like the one worn by Jimmy McNulty, the protagonist of HBO’s “The Wire.” (One of my all-time favorite shows.)

When we sat down in a conference room looking out over South Lake Union, I asked what he really meant with his “Remapping the World” initiative. It’s about using high-powered computers to crunch data that helps developers, financiers, and governments decide where the best places are to put a wind farm, solar panels, or hydropower turbines. This isn’t nearly as easy as it sounds, because wind ebbs and flows at different times of day, different seasons of the year. Some years are El Nino, some La Nina. Measurement instruments at Sea-Tac airport don’t always capture wind speed at the corner of 1st Avenue and Pike Street. Same goes for solar, and hydro.

That’s a lot of variables to account for, especially if you’re General Electric and looking to invest $300 million in a wind farm that’s supposed to pay off over two or three decades. So 3Tier inhales huge amounts of climate data into its computers, and analyzes it in models to come up with an accurate forecast of what kind of power a particular wind farm is going to produce over time. It can also take measurements at a site over a year’s time, and crunch numbers that may spot a better site a few miles away from one the developer originally scoped out, Westrick says.

“The greatest risk is in the availability of fuel,” Westrick says. “We can create a map of where the wind blows. We can ask where is it abundant? Will it be abundant when we need it?” He added later, “Only a couple of companies can do this.”

Westrick started this company in 1999 in his bedroom. It has grown to about 70 employees. About one-third were trained in earth sciences, one-third are software programmers, and the rest in are in administration, support and business development, he says. 3Tier doesn’t disclose its financials as a private company, but he says the company has boosted sales growth by more than … Next Page »

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