For wind power to take a firmer hold, a missing ingredient must materialize: data.
Wind Pole Ventures is building a business as an information broker, gathering more accurate wind speed information for sale to wind farm developers. Last month, the Lexington, Mass.-based start-up signed on its first customer, Invenergy, which will use Wind Pole's data service to better predict wind performance.
Wind power has grown rapidly in the U.S. over the past few years, but the output of large-scale farms has not always matched expectations, which means those projects are less profitable than predicted. Varying wind speeds also make managing the reliability of the grid more complicated, as unanticipated dips can cause outages.
Wind Pole has bought the rights to place wind speed measuring devices, called anenometers, on microwave towers. There were 1,200 of the towers put in place for communications during the Cold War, some of which are used as cell phone towers. But they were largely made obsolete by fiber optic links, said Steve Kropper, founder and CEO of Wind Pole.
Gathering data at 100 meters (328 feet)--about the same height of wind turbines' towers--delivers far more accurate information than getting a reading at 10 meters, which is how data is typically gathered now, Kropper said.
"Ten states have more than 3 percent wind power in their state and because it's intermittent, it comes and goes. So wind has the capacity to provide the grid or destabilize it," he said. "Since there is not storage yet, all we can do is have better predictions for when it blows and when it stops."
There are other companies and technologies aimed at getting more accurate wind speed data. Somerville, Mass.-based Second Wind has a solar-powered, land-based device that gathers data via sodar, which is like radar but uses sound waves instead of radio waves.
Kropper said that using "old-fashioned" anenometers allows it to be relatively cheap and attract investors wary of new technologies. Invenergy plans to use data gathered from almost 60 towers in six states in the U.S.