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NOAA Network Provides “Fuel” Data for Solar Car Race

July 15, 2008

Solar race car.
The University of Michigan's sun-powered vehicle “Continuum.”

High resolution (credit: UM Solar)

Instead of pulling into pit row for fuel, at least one team racing a solar-powered electric car in the 2,400-mile North American Solar Challenge will be relying on information provided by NOAA’s Surface Radiation Network for vital information about solar energy reaching the Earth’s surface — and their car’s solar cells.

NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory operates seven domestic and nine international SURFRAD stations measuring solar radiation. All sites gather data for long-term climate monitoring and short-term weather forecasts. SURFRAD also collects reflected solar and infrared energy emitted from the Earth and the atmosphere. The entire data package helps NOAA and NASA validate satellite estimates of radiation absorbed at Earth’s surface. But this month the information will also be going to the races.

A University of Michigan team is among a field of 24 solar vehicle teams on their way from Texas to Canada in this year’s competition. As with any automobile race, wise management of fuel consumption can make the difference between winning and losing. When they approach Sioux Falls, S.D., on July 16, the Michigan students, and possibly others, will access online data available from the nearby SURFRAD station to help them generate as much power as possible from the sun.

Sioux Falls station.
NOAA’s automated instruments near Sioux Falls, Idaho, track solar energy and other radiation.

High resolution (credit: NOAA )

The Michigan racers are using historic solar data to get an idea of what a typical summer day is like in Sioux Falls and using near-real-time SURFRAD data to strategize their driving as they approach the town. This solar information is valuable because just as gasoline powers a conventional automobile, solar radiant energy converted into electricity propels cars competing in the North American Solar Challenge.

“Anybody who needs information about the amount of solar energy reaching Earth is welcome to the data, which are extremely reliable,” said NOAA meteorologist John Augustine, who manages the SURFRAD network for ESRL. “Forensic meteorologists, architects, energy consultants, and, of course, scientists contact us for surface radiation data and related information.” 

This year’s race is not the first time NOAA data have been used by solar car teams taking a shot at glory. In 2006 the Principia College team used historic SURFRAD data to develop a computer model of solar performance based on geographic location and date. The model helped them estimate the performance of their car’s solar array at locations along race routes.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, an agency of the U.S. Commerce Department, is dedicated to enhancing economic security and national safety through the prediction and research of weather and climate-related events and information service delivery for transportation, and by providing environmental stewardship of our nation's coastal and marine resources. Through the emerging Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS), NOAA is working with its federal partners, more than 70 countries and the European Commission to develop a global monitoring network that is as integrated as the planet it observes, predicts and protects.