Power to the People: How Satellite Data Help Us Exploit Nature's Renewable Ener


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November 5, 2001

As you read this, millions of people worldwide are in desperate need of a source of fuel for cooking their food. Millions of people live in homes that do not have electric lights, much less appliances that improve the quality of life in all those countless ways that we, in developed countries, take for granted. There are health clinics in tropical countries around the world that are at risk of ruining badly needed medicines because they cannot keep them adequately refrigerated. Surfing closer to home, if you are reading this in California, your computer may flick off without warning as rolling blackouts deprive portions of the state of power, seemingly at random.

  For more information about NASA’s Surface Meteorology and Solar Energy Project, visit the home page (a new browser window will open).

Photograph of Primitive Village

The issue in most of these cases is not too little power. Rather, the issue is we humans don’t effectively and efficiently make use of the power resources—all of the resources—available to us. We in the western world are accustomed to thinking in terms of building more power plants so we can burn more coal and fossil fuels to feed our insatiable demand for power. But we must also aggressively explore how to better take advantage of those sources of energy that nature gives us freely, and replenishes constantly. The sunlight that reaches the Earth every hour is greater than the amount of energy used by the Earth’s entire population in a year. There are many regions in our world that receive at least 4 kilowatt hours of sunlight per square meter per day. This energy could be used to, say, bake a chicken or boil a stew. You could even power most of your home, except for heating and air conditioning!

  In much of the world there is no elecricity, no deliveries of home heating oil, and no natural gas piped into the home. These regions are dependent on fuels such as wood and animal dung for home heating and cooking. Such fuels are dirty and inefficient, and often in short supply. Alternative energy sources such as solar power and wind energy can provide necessary energy, but they need to be placed in appropriate areas with enough sun and wind. (Photograph copyright Martin Beland)

Photograph of Solar Power Plant

Many people who live in underdeveloped countries spend more of their disposable income on fuel for cooking food than they have to spend on food itself. Most of these are tropical countries where, ironically, there is ample sunlight to power many of the people’s basic needs. In certain areas, there is often an abundance of wind energy. Turbines can easily capture enough of this wind energy to, say, power light bulbs or charge batteries.

What is lacking is the technology—at an affordable price for those who need it most—for people to tap into these and other sources of natural renewable energy. Before engineers can develop such technology, they need to know how much of a given type of energy is available, and precisely when and where. Specifically, for any given locale, engineers need accurate data collected over a long period of time. Any system for harnessing a natural renewable energy resource must be adapted for the location where the technology is to be used.


Arid areas with few cloudy days are ideal locations for solar power, as long as they aren’t too far north or south (if you want electricity in the winter, at least). This experimental solar power station in California’s Mojave Desert uses light reflected by mirrors to heat molten salt to 565°C (1050°F). The salt then boils water which drives a steam turbine to generate electricity. Other solar power technologies are smaller and more distributed, such as photovoltaic solar cells and even low-tech solar ovens. (Photograph courtesy National Renewable Energy Laboratory)


Photograph of Wind Turbines

Thanks to the initiative of a team of scientists at NASA’s Langley Research Center (LaRC), engineers and amateur inventors worldwide now have free access to global-scale data on insolation (or incoming sunlight), wind speed and direction, and a range of meteorological variables. Moreover, the LaRC team translated these data into an easy-to-use format so that they plug seamlessly into a new generation of software tools that engineers use to design energy-efficient systems. Already, private companies are using these NASA data to design, build, and market new systems for harnessing renewable energy resources. But the best part is that these new systems will be marketed at affordable prices in underdeveloped countries for those who need them most.

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Wind power is another type of alternative energy suitable for undeveloped areas. State-of-the-art wind turbines can generate electricity; or windmills can perform simple tasks like pumping water. (Photograph courtesy National Renewable Energy Laboratory)