ALCF Improves Wind Predictions
January 9, 2017
research team led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
(NOAA) is performing simulations at the Argonne Leadership Computing
Facility (ALCF), a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science
User Facility, to develop numerical weather prediction models that can
provide more accurate wind forecasts in regions with complex terrain.
The team, funded by DOE in support of its Wind Forecast Improvement
Project II (WFIP 2), is testing and validating the computational models
with data being collected from a network of environmental sensors in the
Columbia River Gorge region.
Wind turbines dotting the Columbia River Gorge in Washington and Oregon
can collectively generate about 4,500 megawatts (MW) of power, or more
than that of five, 800-MW nuclear power plants. However, the gorge
region and its dramatic topography create highly variable wind
conditions, posing a challenge for utility operators who use weather
forecast models to predict when wind power will be available on the
If predictions are unreliable, operators must depend on steady power
sources like coal and nuclear plants to meet demand. Because they take a
long time to fuel and heat, conventional power plants operate on less
flexible timetables and can generate power that is then wasted if wind
energy unexpectedly floods the grid.
locations and lists of instruments deployed within the Columbia River
Gorge, Columbia River Basin, and surrounding region.
To produce accurate wind predictions
over complex terrain, researchers are using Mira, the ALCF’s
10-petaflops IBM Blue Gene/Q supercomputer, to increase resolution and
improve physical representations to better simulate wind features in
national forecast models. In a unique intersection of field observation
and computer simulation, the research team has installed and is
collecting data from a network of environmental instruments in the
Columbia River Gorge region that is being used to test and validate
This research is part of the Wind Forecast Improvement Project II (WFIP
2), an effort sponsored by DOE in collaboration with NOAA, Vaisala—a
manufacturer of environmental and meteorological equipment—and a number
of national laboratories and universities. DOE aims to increase U.S.
wind energy from five to 20 percent of total energy use by 2020, which
means optimizing how wind is used on the grid.
“Our goal is to give utility operators better forecasts, which could
ultimately help make the cost of wind energy a little cheaper,” said
lead model developer Joe Olson of NOAA. “For example, if the forecast
calls for a windy day but operators don’t trust the forecast, they won’t
be able to turn off coal plants, which are releasing carbon dioxide when
maybe there was renewable wind energy available.”
The complicated physics of wind
For computational efficiency, existing forecast models assume the
Earth’s surface is relatively flat—which works well at predicting wind
on the flat terrain of the Midwestern United States where states like
Texas and Iowa generate many thousands of megawatts of wind power. Yet,
as the Columbia River Gorge region demonstrates, some of the ripest
locations for harnessing wind energy could be along mountains and
coastlines where conditions are difficult to predict.
“There are a lot of complications predicting wind conditions for terrain
with a high degree of complexity at a variety of spatial scales,” Olson
Two major challenges include overcoming a model resolution that is too
low for resolving wind features in sharp valleys and mountain gaps and a
lack of observational data.
At the NOAA National Center for Environmental Prediction, two
atmospheric models run around the clock to provide national weather
forecasts: the 13-km Rapid Refresh (RAP) and the 3-km High-Resolution
Rapid Refresh (HRRR). Only a couple of years old, the HRRR model has
improved storm and winter weather predictions by resolving atmospheric
features at 9 km2—or about 2.5 times the size of Central Park in New
At a resolution of a few kilometers, HRRR can capture processes at the
mesoscale—about the size of storms—but cannot resolve features at the
microscale, which is a few hundred feet. Some phenomena important to
wind prediction that cannot be modeled in RAP or HRRR include mountain
wakes (the splitting of airflow obstructed by the side of a mountain);
mountain waves (the oscillation of air flow on the side of the mountain
that affects cloud formation and turbulence); and gap flow (small-scale
winds that can blow strongly through gaps in mountains and gorge
The 750-meter leap
To make wind predictions that are sufficiently accurate for utility
operators, Olson said they need to model physical parameters at a 750-m
resolution—about one-sixth the size of Central Park, or an average wind
farm. This 16-times increase in resolution will require a lot of
real-world data for model testing and validation, which is why the WFIP
2 team outfitted the Columbia River Gorge region with more than 20
environmental sensor stations.
“We haven’t been able to identify all the strengths and weaknesses for
wind predictions in the model because we haven’t had a complete,
detailed dataset,” Olson said. “Now we have an expansive network of wind
profilers and other weather instruments. Some are sampling wind in
mountain gaps and valleys, others are on ridges. It’s a multiscale
network that can capture the high-resolution aspects of the flow, as
well as the broader mesoscale flows.”
Many of the sensors send data every 10 minutes. Considering data will be
collected for an 18-month period that began in October 2015 and ends
March 2017, this steady stream will ultimately amount to about half a
petabyte. The observational data is initially sent to Pacific Northwest
National Laboratory where it is stored until it is used to test model
parameters on Mira at Argonne.
The WFIP 2 research team needed Mira’s highly parallel architecture to
simulate an ensemble of about 20 models with varied parameterizations.
ALCF researchers Ray Loy and Ramesh Balakrishnan worked with the team to
optimize the HRRR architectural configuration and craft a strategy that
allowed them to run the necessary ensemble jobs.
“We wanted to run on Mira because ALCF has experience using HRRR for
climate simulations and running ensembles jobs that would allow us to
compare the models’ physical parameters,” said Rao Kotamarthi, chief
scientist and department head of Argonne’s Climate and Atmospheric
Science Department. “The ALCF team helped to scale the model to Mira and
instructed us on how to bundle jobs so they avoid interrupting workflow,
which is important for a project that often has new data coming in.”
The ensemble approach allowed the team to create case studies that are
used to evaluate how each simulation compared to observational data.
pick certain case studies where the model performs very poorly, and we
go back and change the physics in the model until it improves, and we
keep doing that for each case study so that we have significant
improvement across many scenarios,” Olson said.
At the end of the field data collection, the team will simulate an
entire year of weather conditions with an emphasis on wind in the
Columbia River Gorge region using the control model—the 3-km HRRR model
before any modifications were made—and a modified model with the
improved physical parameterizations.
“That way, we’ll be able to get a good measure of how much has improved
overall,” Olson said.
Computing time on Mira was awarded through the ASCR Leadership Computing
Challenge (ALCC). Collaborating institutions include DOE’s Wind Energy
Technologies Office, NOAA, Argonne, Pacific Northwest National
Laboratory, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the National
Renewable Energy Laboratory, the University of Colorado, Notre Dame
University, Texas Tech University, and Vaisala.