To unlock renewables’ full potential, we have to understand weather

IRENA and the WMO call for using climate data to more efficiently manage energy resources.

December 4, 2023
Wind turbines in a dust storm

Photo credit:  David McNew / Getty Images

In 2022, 83% of new power capacity globally was renewable, a statistic largely powered by wind and solar. That’s good news for the energy transition, but it also poses yet another challenge: efficient renewable energy requires huge amounts of weather data

Per one of COP28’s most oft-cited data points, meeting Paris Agreement targets will require tripling renewable energy deployment by 2030. But according to a new report from the International Renewable Energy Agency and the World Meteorological Organization, the renewables that are already online are being greatly impacted by weather variability and climate change.

And maximizing the efficiency of that output will require that utilities and the renewables sector understand meteorological variables that make things like solar and wind more or less optimal, said IRENA and WMO in their first joint report.

The two organizations analyzed production anomalies in onshore wind, solar, hydropower, and energy demand, by comparing 2022 to a baseline average of climatology data from 1991 to 2020. Every indicator assessed showed “noticeable changes” in capacity factors (the ratio of actual energy production compared to peak production) due to weather variability and to climate change.

Understanding the impact of weather — especially as the climate changes — on renewable energy output is key to efficiently managing projects and preemptively smoothing variability curves. In large part, the report said, this is because that weather data enables the industry to accurately predict output on a larger scale. But solutions vary based on energy source and geography.

Wind, for example, demonstrates a variability of more than 15% in many countries, especially in Central America and Papua New Guinea. At the same time, places including Bolivia, Korea, and the United States saw increases in wind capacity factor. 

Armed with this data, the report suggested that places like the United States should prioritize wind power development to make up for reduced capacity factor in Mexico.

IRENA and WMO found that solar is particularly good at enduring variability. It showed smaller output changes than wind, hydro, and energy demand, with the largest changes showing up in Bolivia, Paraguay, and Argentina, where operational efficiency increased by between 3% and 6% in 2022. 

Measuring global averages is challenging due to the variation in country size, but there are clear continental trends in solar production. In May 2022, for example, South America, Africa, and Europe had better-than-usual conditions for generating solar power, while Southeast Asia showed reductions in efficiency of up to 18%.

To mitigate the efficiency problems posed by changing weather in a changing climate, the report makes a number of recommendations for policymakers, investors, and utilities. Among those is to focus on improving climate and weather forecasting technology so as to be able to provide early warnings regarding the impact of large-scale atmospheric patterns. 

The report also recommends a “dual procurement” approach to developing flexible systems that ensure wind and solar generation complement each other effectively, and that support “flexibility resources” like batteries and interconnections.

This approach to power markets would involve procuring both long-term renewable energy supply through auctions or direct public investments, and short-term flexibility through a bidding format.

Finally, the report said, greater collaboration is needed when it comes to collecting and sharing weather and energy data, including data on installed capacity and actual generation. Ultimately, more data means more efficient renewables.

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