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How the defunct NASA space shuttle program is improving solar power

How the defunct NASA space shuttle program is improving solar power

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NASA's space shuttle program has ended. But the data the space craft collected has proven worthwhile to solar energy researchers -- and now, utilities and homeowners.

NASA's defunct space shuttle program could end up helping utility companies and even homeowners figure out how to avoid costly siting mistakes and boost solar power output.

The space shuttle program is no longer functioning. However, the three decades of data collected by the space craft is still proving its worth. Researchers at the Jacobs School of Engineering at UC San Diego used measurements from NASA's Shuttle Radar Topography Mission to predict changes in elevation -- dips, hills, mesas  and valleys -- and more importantly, the shadows they create.

Shadows are more than just an annoyance to solar installers and large-scale power plant developers. They can be expensive. Large-scale models used to calculate potential solar power output currently don't take elevation into account. Which means solar power planners are missing key data that will help them determine the optimal site for an installation. A poorly sited solar array will generate less power and that means a longer return on investment for the homeowner or utility.

The Jacobs School of Engineering at UC San Diego, led by environmental engineering professor Jan Kleissl and postdoctoral researcher Juan Luis Bosch, built a model with help from the Triton Supercomputer at San Diego Supercomputer Center that covers the elevation question. It took the supercomputer 60,000 processor hours to run the calculations. The data, which provides information on Southern California and the San Francisco Bay Area, will be available to the public via the California Solar Initiative website.

The model does have its limitations. It doesn't take into account trees, poles and rooftop structures like chimneys. Although these are the kinds of obstacles that a solar installer would commonly look for.

The project focused on California because that's where most solar power plants are located. But the space shuttle data could be used to create models for other regions as well. Bosch used elevation data collected on a near-global scale by astronauts aboard the Endeavor space shuttle during an 11-day mission in February 2000.  The data was compiled into a high-resolution digital topographic database of most of the planet.

On a side note: Expect more innovative solar forecasting solutions to come out of UC San Diego. Kleissl's research has already helped advance solar power forecasting, including a the development of a software program that allows power grid managers to more easily predict fluctuations caused by changes in cloud cover.

[via: Jacobs School of Engineering at UC San Diego]

Photo: NASA

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Kirsten Korosec

Contributing Editor

Kirsten Korosec has written for Technology Review, Marketing News, The Hill, BNET and Bloomberg News. She holds a degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. She is based in Tucson, Arizona. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure