3Tier Group Finishes Map of the World’s Wind, Solar Energy Hotspots

2/24/10Follow @xconomy

Seattle-based 3Tier Group set an audacious goal two years ago of remapping the world to find the best spots to generate solar and wind power, and now it’s done. Of course, that means it’s time for 3Tier to show this information is truly valuable to customers.

3Tier finished its map of the world’s wind currents in November 2008, and yesterday it announced the completion of the solar map. This was truly a project cut out for the supercomputer it has in Seattle’s Westin building. 3Tier captured data from five different stationary satellites, and took half-hour snapshots of sun patterns on Earth over the past 10 to 13 years, zeroing in on squares as narrow as 3.3 kilometers across. (You can look at a thumbnail version of the map below. Click on it for a larger version.)

By taking so many repeated glimpses over time, and over such a small surface area, 3Tier hopes to provide power companies with deeply detailed information which ought to be useful before they plunk down $100 million or $200 million to build a renewable power plant, says 3Tier CEO Ken Westrick.

“This way you can account for cloud cover, and get a much better idea of the transient behavior of the clouds,” Westrick says.

This will be an important year to test 3Tier’s business plan, which rests on selling access to this data on the ebb and flow of the sun and wind. The company, founded in 1999, raised $10 million in December 2008 to finish the remapping project. But the economy didn’t do 3Tier any favors last year, as a lot of alternative energy projects slowed down or shifted into a wait and see mode. 3Tier laid off an undisclosed number of workers last September, and revamped its business to de-emphasize consulting, allowing customers to access their datasets over the Internet and customize their own dashboards for forecasting and power assessment. The company has “gotten traction,” with this strategy since last fall, and is “close” to operating at a profit, said Westrick, without providing specific numbers. The company now has about 60 employees, he says.3tiermaps

I pressed Westrick on how this new solar map is really different from whatever his customers have access to now, to give me a better idea of how useful this might be to them. The main competition in the U.S. is from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), Westrick says. The big difference is that NREL’s map looks at the U.S. in 10-kilometer wide squares, and takes snapshots every three hours. So the 3Tier map, as Westrick says, is higher resolution, which ought to account for the finicky behavior of clouds (something we Northwesterners know all about). Clouds obviously count for a lot in the solar world, because they have a direct effect on how much power a solar plant can throw off.

“We think our accuracy is a little higher, and when you’re spending $100 million to $200 million on a project, you want to look at another source of data,” Westrick says. “It’s a good idea to get a second opinion.”

A potentially bigger opportunity for 3Tier, however, is in other parts of the world that are getting aggressive about renewable energy, and don’t have access to any data from a government agency like NREL. India and Australia don’t have access to anything like the 3Tier solar map from another source, and the company has established offices with good potential to attract customers there, Westrick says. Europe is another promising market for solar power, particularly Spain, although 3Tier has found Europe to be “hard to break into.”

Now that the data is in, I wondered which results really surprised the people at 3Tier. After all, who needs a supercomputer to tell them the sun is powerful in Arizona, Australia, and Spain? It turns out that a lot of previous attempts at solar mapping relied on averaging, which made those places look promising on a map, but there’s actually more nuance when 3Tier dug deeper. In India, for example, 3Tier found a lot of month to month variability, in which so-called “sunny areas” on the map had more cloud cover at certain parts of the year. If, say, the highly populated coastal areas have peak electricity demand at a time when the clouds are overhead, and the best solar resources are inland at those moments, that’s something you’d want to know before breaking ground on a new plant, Westrick says.

“You need to ask, ‘Is the resource, the sun, there when you need it?’” Westrick says.

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