A cutting-edge forecasting system designed specifically for the solar energy industry is about to have its moment in the sun.

Called Sun4Cast, the technology has been under development for the last three years at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). It utilizes a wide variety of systems, from advanced computer models to atmospheric observations and artificial intelligence techniques, to build forecasts up to 50 percent more accurate than current technologies.

"This type of research and development is important because it contributes to the reduction in costs for solar and wind energy and makes it easier for utilities to integrate renewables into the electrical grid," William Mahoney, deputy director of NCAR's Research Applications Laboratory, said in a statement. "When it comes to balancing demand for power with supply, it's vital to be able to predict sources of energy as accurately as possible."

While renewables are the future of energy production, they're still an intermittent technology influenced by everything from a lack of wind to a cloud passing in front of the sun. But Sun4Cast's system is able to predict conditions for solar irradiance as far as 72 hours in advance, allowing plant managers and grid operators to more accurately estimate just how much green power will be available to the grid.

NCAR Sun4Cast This chart, provided by NCAR, shows the wide array of sources tapped to produce a future solar forecast. (Photo: NCAR)

"These results can help enable the nation's expanding use of solar energy," said Sue Ellen Haupt, director of NCAR’s Weather Systems and Assessment Program and the person who led the research team. "More accurate predictions are vital for making solar energy more reliable and cost effective."

To vet the system against a wide variety of conditions, the researchers tested Sun4Cast at sites such as Long Island, New York, the Colorado mountains, and coastal California. They estimate utilities across the U.S. leveraging the new forecasting system could save as much as $455 million through 2040 as the use of solar grows.

“Our previous experience with the National Center for Atmospheric Research in developing a wind forecasting system has saved millions of dollars and has been highly beneficial for our customers," said Drake Bartlett of Xcel Energy, one of the first utilities to embrace Sun4Cast. "It is our sincere hope and belief that we will see positive atmospheric forecasting results for predicting solar generation as well ..."

Michael d'Estries ( @michaeldestries ) covers science, technology, art, and the beautiful, unusual corners of our incredible world.

What if solar forecasting was more precise?
Sun4Cast offers improved predictions of clouds and other atmospheric conditions that directly influence solar energy production.