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UK Aims to Boost Solar by Predicting Cloud Movements With A.I.

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  • National Grid Electricity System Operator has signed a deal with non-profit Open Climate Fix to create an AI-powered tracking system that matches cloud movements with the exact locations of solar panels.
  • The grid operator said that the software, which is set to be used in the national control room, could help it to forecast cloud movements in minutes and hours instead of days.
  • Open Climate Fix's "nowcasting" technology has the potential to improve solar forecasting accuracy by up to 50%, a spokesperson for National Grid ESO told CNBC.

LONDON ­– The U.K. is planning to use artificial intelligence software to try to better predict when cloud movements will affect solar power generation.

National Grid Electricity System Operator, or ESO, which moves electricity around the country, has signed a deal with non-profit Open Climate Fix to create an AI-powered tracking system that matches cloud movements with the exact locations of solar panels.

The grid operator said that the software, which is set to be used in the national control room, could help it to forecast cloud movements in minutes and hours instead of days.

Open Climate Fix's "nowcasting" technology has the potential to improve solar forecasting accuracy by up to 50%, a spokesperson for National Grid ESO told CNBC.

The project, which commenced in August, is set to last 18 months and it is being funded by U.K. energy regulator Ofgem with £500,000 ($683,100).

The solar dilemma

Natonal Grid ESO is responsible for maintaining the balance of supply and demand for the U.K. electricity grid down to the second.

This is challenging with fossil fuels and nuclear power, but the unpredictable nature of solar and wind makes the task even more complex.  

To help address the issue, London-headquartered Open Climate Fix says it has trained a machine-learning model to read satellite images and understand how and where clouds are moving in relation to solar panels on the ground.

"Accurate forecasts for weather-dependent generation like solar and wind are vital for us in operating a low carbon electricity system," said Carolina Tortora, head of innovation strategy and digital transformation at National Grid ESO, in a statement last week.

"The more confidence we have in our forecasts, the less we'll have to cover for uncertainty by keeping traditional, more controllable fossil fuel plants ticking over," she added.

Google backing

Co-founded by former DeepMind employee Jack Kelly in 2018, Open Climate Fix was backed by Google's philanthropic arm, Google.org, with £500,000 in April.

At one point, DeepMind wanted to use its own AI technology to optimize National Grid. However, last March, it emerged that talks had broken down between DeepMind and National Grid.

While DeepMind denies it has shifted its focus from climate change to other areas of science, several key climate change researchers that were part of the company's energy unit have left the company over the last two years, and it has made few climate change-related announcements. 

Open Climate Fix isn't the only company that sees the potential for AI in solar forecasting.

Australian solar energy provider New Energy Solar said in July 2019 that it is applying AI to solar energy problems.

Elsewhere, a team of students won the University of Hawaii's Breakthrough Innovation Challenge last December for using machine learning to forecast cloud cover for the solar industry.

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