Global Data for Global Concerns

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In 1986, there was international competition among various agencies to produce the first accurate estimate of the amount of sunlight received at the surface over the entire globe. Robert Schiffer, NASA’s representative to the World Climate Research Program, asked NASA LaRC to put together the first such data set using Surface Radiation Budget satellite data. It was Schiffer’s initiative that ultimately set the stage for NASA’s currently ongoing Earth Science Enterprise Surface Radiation Budget Program. The initiative succeeded and a new global insolation data set was produced and stored in the LaRC data archive.

Fast forward to 1996 when the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) approached NASA with the idea of publishing some of its global-scale data in a format that is easily accessible and usable by the general public, particularly private industries. At that time there were no publicly accessible global data sets on key parameters like surface insolation. Measurements were made at only a thousand or so highly localized sites around the world, mostly clustered in Europe—too few and far between to serve the DoE’s goal. Their goal was to stimulate greater commercial development of innovative new technologies for harvesting natural renewable energy sources worldwide.

NASA responded to the DoE need and the NASA Surface Meteorology and Solar Energy (SSE) Project was born. The initial focus was on publishing the same Surface Radiation Budget data that scientists were using to construct and refine global climate models. The SSE Project painstakingly synthesized previously released data sets from NOAA’s Advanced Very High Resolution Radiometers (AVHRR) and Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites (GOES), the Japanese Geostationary Meteorolgical Satellites, and European Meteorological Satellites (Meteosats). These regional satellite data sets are contained in the International Satellite Cloud and Climatology Project (ISCCP) and the Goddard Earth Observing System General Circulation Model global data sets. The team then synthesized the global data sets—containing a variety of measurements, ranging from cloud cover to solar insolation to meteorological variables, such as temperature, wind speed, and atmospheric pressure—into the SSE data set.


Palette for Wind Speed

“We could offer global-scale measurements of satellite-derived renewable energy resource data, whereas private industry previously only had access to ground measurement data,” states Charles Whitlock, SSE Project Engineer. “Although there are more than a thousand ground monitoring stations around the world which have measurements of insolation, historically there has been very little effort to cross calibrate the equipment at these sites to ensure the measurements are consistent. And, only a fraction of the stations collected data routinely.”

Right on schedule, the SSE Team published the first version of its SSE Web Site, and within weeks the team started receiving feedback, complaints mostly, from commercial users. Users complained that the scientific terminology on the site was confusing. Then, there were issues with data format and units of measure that commercial engineers weren’t used to.

“Engineers in commercial industry rarely use scientific data as presented,” Whitlock explains. “They work with averages, maximums, minimums, specific events, funny accumulations, and ‘degree days.’” (A degree-day is a measure of the difference between a given standard and a given day’s average temperature. Degree-days in the summer usually refer to the number of degrees by which the mean temperature exceeds 65°F, or 18°F.)

Whitlock adds that there is also a perceived element of risk on the part of commercial companies in working with NASA climate data. “Generally, the commercial industry is reluctant to use NASA data because they don’t have a history with it. It is often an unknown quantity to engineering companies, their insurance companies, and their financiers.”

So, the SSE Team went to work on Version 2 of its Web site. The first step was to learn the language spoken by businesses. To help them, the SSE Team established partnerships with several small commercial companies and non-profit organizations, such as the Center for Renewable Energy and Sustainable Technology. Gradually, the SSE Team developed rapport with their new partners and learned to speak their language. The team gained a better understanding of the types of measurements their commercial partners are accustomed to working with and began to synthesize the NASA data into familiar formats for them. Twenty-four months later, the SSE Team published Version 2 of its Web site with basically the same information, but the terminology and data parameters were much improved from the users’ perspective. Consequently, the new release was much more successful.

“We learned you have to market your product,” Whitlock states, “and you have to understand the culture of the businesses you interact with.” But what won over even the most skeptical of clients, he says, was the SSE Team’s demonstrations that the satellite data compared quite closely with the 30-year averages compiled by the localized measuring stations that the commercial industry typically used. Now commercial users were ready to trust the satellite data.

“Our role is to provide measurements of the solar energy that is heating the Earth,” concludes Whitlock. “We’re giving commercial users the best possible data that they can get their hands on today. And we’re providing global coverage, which is important for those who work in remote locations.”

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  Global maps of average wind speed help engineers and amateur inventors determine how best to develop new systems for harvesting wind energy. These new systems are tailor made for particular locations. Click once on the animation to stop it; click twice to resume play. (Animation courtesy SSE Project)