'Innovating America’s Clean Energy Future: NOAA Science at Work'—

Keynote address by Dr. Jane Lubchenco at the AREDay Summit


August 18, 2011

Innovating America’s Clean Energy Future: NOAA Science at Work
Keynote Address
8th American Renewable Energy Day (AREDay) Summit
Aspen, Colo.

Jane Lubchenco, Ph.D.
Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere
and NOAA Administrator

As Delivered


Thank you, Heidi!

Greetings to all. It’s always a treat to be in Aspen and even better to be among so many colleagues and friends.

The last time I was in Aspen, I was at the Ideas Festival being interviewed by Andrea Mitchell about the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. That energy-related disaster drew attention to the need for less polluting sources of energy. 

This year’s AREDAY Summit is timely, and the program looks terrific. I plan to focus on the critical role that science plays in making renewable such as wind, solar, and ocean energy affordable. But first, let me highlight a few changes since last year’s summit.


Despite compelling evidence and strong agreement among scientists that climate change is happening, neither the public nor Congress is compelled to take serious and comprehensive action, and so, we have made insufficient progress on curbing greenhouse gas emissions. 

The Obama Administration has championed “landmark provisions on vehicle efficiency and $90B worth of investments to spur efficiency, renewable energy, an electric car industry and smart-grid investment that makes us cleaner, more competitive and less carbon intensive.”

One huge change this year that stands out and is getting attention is the onslaught of extreme weather. Eight months into the year, hundreds of people have died, more than $35 billion in damage has been tallied, and weather records are being smashed. We’ve seen historic tornadoes, floods, drought, wildfires, and a mammoth blizzard that swept the central, eastern, and northeastern states. And months later, an unprecedented heat wave in the same place and with 147million people — half of the population of the U.S. — under a heat advisory or warning.

In April alone, we witnessed record breaking tornadoes, floods, drought and wildfire. But it didn’t stop there. This summer, every state has set a heat record. In July alone, Colorado broke or tied 50 heat records, including twenty three 100-plus-degree records. And Colorado has not borne the brunt of severe weather this year. Preliminary analyses show a whopping 5,000 heat records were broken in the country, In the first half of August, preliminary analysis shows a whopping 5,000 heat records were broken. 2000 of those were record high maximums. Night times are getting warmer.

Every year, more people die in heat waves than hurricanes, tornadoes, floods and earthquakes combined. Heat wave forecasts save lives. And this year, NOAA has been exceptionally busy. NOAA forecasts heat waves about two weeks before they happen. When a city hears that a heat wave is coming, it prepares cooling centers to protect people who don’t have a way to keep cool.

We feel heat. We crank up the A/C. The demand for electricity strains the city’s power capacity. With advance heat wave warnings, cities can plan for the extra demand on the power grid. Hospitals make contingency plans knowing that brownouts may occur. By giving advance warning, NOAA forecasts help people and communities prepare for extreme weather events. But advance warning can only go so far.

This heat is wreaking havoc with farming and with wildfires. A new record has been set for January-July 2011, with 6.1 million acres burned. But the pattern is more complex. This is a tale of two countries - hot and dry in some places, super wet elsewhere.  I mentioned earlier that at the end of July, 26 percent of the lower 48 was in severe to extreme drought. At the same time 33 percent of the country was severely hot. Among the many statistics that NOAA tracks are the numbers of severe weather events — hurricanes, tornadoes, snow storms, floods, etc., that total $1 billion or more. The previous record number of “$1 billion events” was set in 2008. 2011 has now tied 2008 with nine $1 billion events, and we are only eight months into the year with peak hurricane season looming.

Each of you has undoubtedly experienced some of this extreme weather. But summarizing the country-wide patterns, as I just have, presents a sobering picture. The U.S. is increasingly vulnerable to extreme weather and we are witnessing more extreme weather.

The good news is that through investments in research, NOAA has vastly improved its ability to predict these extreme events and provide warnings to enable communities, individuals and emergency managers to prepare and respond.

The bad news is that with climate change underway, we’ll likely see continued increases in severe storms and drought and heat waves. Climate change loads the dice in favor of more and more intense extreme events. So, your work here is even more important and urgent, and it is complementary to what the Administration is doing

In the State of the Union Address and again in the White House Blueprint for a Secure Energy Future issued in May, the President set a goal: 80 percent of our electricity must come from clean energy sources by 2035.

According to a 2009 analysis conducted by the Union of Concerned Scientists, this goal could be met or exceeded by 2030 by improving energy efficiency and investing in renewable sources.

In 2008, the Department of Energy told us that reaching 20 percent of our electricity by 2030 is feasible.  Today, 10 percent is seen in many areas today.

Every sector here today has a role to play in meeting the 80-percent-by-2035 goal. Government at all levels, industry, NGOs, and academia must all be engaged to meet this challenge. 

In the federal government, every agency is onboard. Across every agency, we are all being held accountable for walking the talk of sustainability, as described in the Blueprint and the “Leading by Examples for a Sustainable Future” initiative. 

From sustainable buildings and facilities to the cars in our fleet, we are laying the framework for a sustainable future. At NOAA, we had the first ship running on 100% biofuel in 2007, and now all three of our ships in the Great Lakes are completely petroleum-free — fuel, lubricants and hydraulics.

NOAA is one of the federal agencies stepping up to the plate on clean energy. So what does NOAA — an agency for oceans and atmosphere — have to offer to innovate America’s clean energy future? NOAA is the nation’s first science agency. Founded by Thomas Jefferson when he was president, the focus was on creating nautical maps and charts, and it was called Survey of the Coast. Today, NOAA still provides those valuable services, but we do so much more.

We are the stewards of the oceans and coasts. We are the National Weather Service, providing weather forecasts and warnings. We are creators of climate knowledge and stewards of weather and climate records. We gather environmental data from satellites, planes, the ground and the ocean, and share them widely. We are the nation’s science agency for oil spills in marine and coastal environments. We spur innovation that saves lives and creates business and economic opportunity. In summary, we are a science, services, and stewardship agency. And we do all that — and more — for less than a nickel a day.


So, what is NOAA doing that is unique and essential to making renewable energy meet the 80 percent goal in the U.S.? In two words: weather forecasts. Wind and solar energy depend on NOAA’s wind and weather forecasts.

Wind forecasts play a critical role in making affordable wind and solar energy happen, for the simple reason that wind isn’t constant, and clouds come and go. 

When the wind stops blowing, the grid has to fill in — some other energy source has to take over. At a technical level, switching from a renewable like wind to hydro, gas or coal is no simple matter. There are significant energy costs and technical issues in that switching.

So what is it about weather forecasts that make NOAA the right partner for wind energy?

NOAA has the data that industry needs to make wind energy projections.
Temperature, humidity, atmospheric pressure, wind — you name it, we collect it. NOAA is the collector, curator and archive of the nation’s historic and current weather records. The tradition of collecting and curating weather records in the U.S. started in the 1800s at the Smithsonian. Long-term records form the basis for the Earth’s climate record.

NOAA has the observational capabilities to collect wind and weather data.
To collect all of that data, you need satellites in space, planes in the air, radar and atmospheric surface observing stations on the ground, ships and buoys on the water, and gliders under the sea. Without them, there would be no weather forecast. 

NOAA has the models for making wind and weather predictions.
To go from data to forecasts, you need models based on how we understand weather works.
We feed data — e.g., the atmosphere’s current state taken at a vast number of locations — from the observations made by satellites and such into weather models. Supercomputers run the models and  crunch the data to generate weather forecasts. And then there is the human skill required to interpret those forecasts and turn them into useful products for users.


So, what we currently provide is necessary, but is not sufficient.

Wind energy producers have told us they need better predictions than what they have now for what the wind’s going to do. Variability in production can go from zero to max over a short period of time, and there is no economical solution for storing wind energy on a large-scale for use at a later time.   

What wind energy producers need are wind forecasts a day ahead of production. Day-ahead wind forecasts would improve integration across the grid. If 20 percent of U.S. electric needs are met by wind energy, wind forecasts made a day ahead would save the industry an estimated $1–$4 billion per year.

That’s our target, and to reach it, we’re collaborating on two projects:

NOAA, the Department of Energy, two industry partners, and academic researchers are collaborating on a project to do the research to move us toward day-ahead wind forecasts — forecasts where we know when and how hard the wind will blow.

This project, the Wind Forecast Improvement Project, is in a good position to accomplish the goal of making wind energy affordable for the consumer. 

We have the right tools, the right expertise, and the right partners to do this research. And we’re doing this research in the right place – rural areas where there are wide swaths of open land in Texas and the upper Midwest.

We expect that an improved forecast can help energy companies better anticipate how much production they’ll get from wind turbines, which can help them better plan — and minimize — energy production by conventional generators (gas and coal).

Ultimately, this research will make wind energy affordable for consumers.

Multiple sectors will benefit from this research. The wind data will be fed into high-resolution weather models that are used for research. Ultimately, wind energy research will yield better weather forecasts. 

NOAA science also is being put to work to lower the cost of electric power in yet another way: through research to protect wind turbines from damage. When wind turbines are spinning, they generate a “wind wake.” When an 18-wheeler passes you at 60 mph on the highway, you feel the force of that wind wake on your vehicle. Wind wakes can damage turbines downstream and reduce productivity in the grid. 

This is another partnership: NOAA’s Boulder lab and DOE’s National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) in Golden (Colo.), along with Lawrence Livermore National Lab in California, and academic researchers.


These two projects illustrate the improvements we can make through research — research that leverages the right partners, the right expertise and access to the right resources. These partnerships are inclusive — federal agencies, like NOAA, DOE and DOI, industry, academic researchers, and NGOs. In fact, the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) identified four areas ripe for partnering: data collection, models, data archiving and research. 

One successful public-private partnership worth noting is the one that already exists between the airline industry and NOAA. 

For nearly 20 years, Delta, United and Northwest Airlines have shared their meteorological data with NOAA. Other airlines now share their data too. 

NOAA acts as an honest broker of data. And in a win-win outcome, airline data contribute to the improvement of model forecasts used by all NOAA users. 

Among the users are the airlines themselves. In this day of tough fiscal realities, data-sharing and resource-sharing in general will be key to expediting growth of renewables.


My two examples of NOAA energy research show the role science plays in innovating our clean energy future.  

But research budgets are often the first to go in tough budget times. They’re viewed as expendable because immediate payoffs aren’t in sight. 

As NY Times columnist David Leonhardt wrote when commenting on the pivot from climate policy to clean energy research, “Politically, the weakest link in the pro-[clean energy] research argument is that no one knows exactly where the money will come from.”

And yet, I know you here today appreciate how important this research is.

We fully appreciate the huge potential to aid industry. But it’s increasingly challenging for us to maintain what we have, let alone grow it in a new direction. 

NOAA’s weather satellites are an example of what can happen in tough budget times. NOAA satellites are vital for weather forecasts. At this time, NOAA is building the JPSS series weather satellite. However, NOAA received less than half of the $1.06 billion requested in the President’s Fiscal Year 2011 budget.  This funding level was needed to meet the planned 2016 launch date for the JPSS-1. It is now near certainty that an unprecedented observational gap will occur between the end of our polar-orbiting NPP research satellite’s operational life and the date when the first JPSS satellite begins operations. A data gap in the NOAA polar-orbit would cause an immediate degradation to NWS weather models and would substantially degrade its ability to identify and predict the severity of major weather events at three days and beyond.

So, yes, we have great challenges right now.

I’m going to close with an observation made by John Kennedy: “Politics is like football. When you see the light, go through the hole.”

I think we’ve done a good job of going through the hole, but where will the money come from? 

Let’s find a way to make clean energy happen together. Let’s do it.


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