Machines have invaded a windswept rural valley in eastern Portugal. Squat white containers stare at the hillsides, sweeping lasers across the eucalyptus-studded slopes, and towers bristling with scientific instruments soar 100 metres into the air.
Their international team of minders will spend the next five months measuring nearly everything it can about the wind that blows through the site. An unprecedented arsenal of meteorological equipment will study speed, direction and other characteristics for the world’s most detailed wind-mapping project. The aim is to illuminate fundamental properties of wind flow over complex terrain, to help researchers improve atmospheric computer models and enable engineers to decide where to put wind turbines to get the most energy from them.
he results of the project, called Perdigão, should also improve models of how air pollution sinks into valleys and help drones and aircraft to navigate gusty mountain terrain.
“This will be utterly transformative in both understanding the physics of the atmosphere and also how to optimally use wind energy,” says Sara Pryor, an atmospheric scientist at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, who works on the project. “It’s brilliant.”
By testing wind-flow models against the detailed data from Perdigão, researchers will be able to apply their findings in other locations. “Lessons learned will translate into improved atmospheric models for the entire wind-energy community,” says Sonia Wharton, a meteorologist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, California.
Europe gets 11% of its total energy from wind. But just a 10% shift in wind speed can change the amount of energy produced by up to 30%, says Jakob Mann, a wind-energy researcher at the Technical University of Denmark near Copenhagen. And losses are greatest in hilly or forested regions. Mann leads the €14-million (US$14.9-million) New European Wind Atlas project, a collection of wind-mapping studies and experiments of which the project in Portugal is the largest.