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Google’s Next Energy Play: Weather Forecasting?

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Google (s GOOG), and its various divisions, has been investing in energy technology across the map from offshore wind cables, to trading energy on the wholesale markets, to buying clean power from a wind farm, to venture-style investments in solar companies and geothermal. But at the GreenBeat conference at Stanford University, on Thursday, a cleantech advisor to Google Ventures, Kenneth Davies, said during a panel that he and Google (s goog) are looking into ways that Google could make weather forecasting data better, which, in turn, could be used to make the power grid smarter.

While Davies declined to comment on any specifics of his research or if there are any partnerships in the works, it would make sense for Google to work with a third-party that has already been working on new weather forecasting tools and hardware, and help such a company by providing either software and data integration services or some strategic capital. In other words, if you have a company that’s working on better sensors or hardware for weather forecasting, pitch Davies, he’s on the look-out.

Weather forecasting — or accurate weather and temperature information in advance and in real time — is already being used by many utilities to manage their power grids. Fluctuations in temperature and humidity can determine how much electricity will be used by buildings for heating and cooling, and can help utilities avoid blackouts in extreme (hot and cold) weather. Companies like IBM (s IBM) are selling weather forecasting services to utilities; smart grid firms like Silver Spring Networks incorporate weather data into utility dashboards; and startups like EcoFactor fold weather data into their automated demand response services.

The problem up to this point has been that weather forecasting data hasn’t been all that accurate or useful. Currently, the government has been the leading repository for this data. The National Weather Service, developed by the U.S. government’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, provides “weather, hydrologic, and climate forecasts and warnings,” for “the protection of life and property and the enhancement of the national economy.” Most of the time, third parties then take this government data and incorporate it into applications, like WeatherBill’s online weather insurance service.

What Davies is probably interested in would be working with a company that wants to build a system to make much more accurate weather information and forecasting system. Theoretically such a system could enable utilities to know much more precise weather conditions farther in advance, and also in real time, so they could tweak grid load to match the environment. If Google ever did make such a move, it would be part of the general trend of how I think weather data will be used as a platform for innovation, in much the way location has been used to date.

Image courtesy of Mr T. in DC.

7 Responses to “Google’s Next Energy Play: Weather Forecasting?”

  1. Stanislav Lem

    There is a thing called ‘Chaos Theory’ and fluid dynamics is a classical example of its manifestations. We need scientific innovation to make progress towards better forecasting, it’s not a question of government vs. private. Utility of forecasts depends on the user and her decision-making needs, so maybe the current forecast could be made more user-relevant, but that wouldn’t improve their overall accuracy, just their value – these are two completely different things.

  2. T. Phineas Buxtehude

    Eric you are such a dork for using this (overly simplified) post as an opportunity to plug your rinky dink consulting service. Net result is sophisticated people have a difficult time taking you seriously, as they do the author of this post given how evident it is the author understands very little about atmospheric science not to mention silly speculation which is bad journalism. Regards, Tareq

  3. Weather forecasting is an area ripe for innovation. The challenge (and the opportunity) is that you have an entrenched government monopoly offering services that meet much of the demand for free in the U.S., but not nearly so open or free in other countries.

    ForecastWatch has been monitoring the quality and accuracy of weather forecasts for six years, and has almost 200 million forecasts in it’s database. The Weather Channel, Telvent DTN, The Weather Network (Canada), and Weather Trends International are some of the customers of ForecastWatch. Anyone who wants to know the difference in quality and accuracy between providers, or evaluate their own forecast accuracy comparatively, should check it out.