IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Sunlight forecasts to benefit electric utilities and … NASCAR

In this file photo, U.S. President Barack Obama (L) tours a solar power site with Col. Howard Belote (C) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) at Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas, Nev.Pool / Getty Images

Race car drivers are likely to benefit from a newly-launched $4.1 million U.S. government-funded program to improve 36-hour forecasts of incoming energy from the sun.

Cloud cover impacts racetrack temperature, which in turn affects how well tires grip the pavement, researchers working on the program explained.

The program’s primary aim is to help electric utilities forecast how much electricity their solar power plants will generate every fifteen minutes, which is largely dependent on how cloudy the skies are during daylight hours.

Forecasting cloud cover, however, is notoriously difficult. Clouds form on microscopic droplets of water or ice and are affected by factors including winds, humidity, sunlight, surface heat, airborne particles, as well as chemicals and gases in the atmosphere.

Solar energy output is also affected by what types of clouds form – thin, wispy ones high in the sky let in more sunlight than thick, low-lying clouds, note researchers at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR).

The fickleness of clouds, in turns, can wreak havoc on electric utilities with solar power plants on their grid. If cloud cover reduces the amount of sunlight available, they need to source it from somewhere else such as natural gas or coal-fired power plants, which are more expensive to operate.

“We can help predict when those renewable resources will be available and that way they can better integrate them into the grid and they can plan their power rates accordingly,” Sue Ellen Haupt, director of the weather systems and assessment program at NCAR, told NBC News.

Her group is heading up the project, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy.

The researchers aim to design a system that uses an array of instruments and techniques including a laser-based technology that measures particles in the atmosphere, satellites, computer models, and artificial intelligence.

Central to the effort will be three total sky imagers in each of several locations that will observe the sky, triangulate the depth and height of clouds, and trace their paths across the sky.

The output of the system will prove useful to utility managers as well as just about everyone else, including local weather forecasters tasked to provide the public with accurate and reliable information used to do everything from dress themselves and decide whether or not to hit the beach.

The modeling "is very specific to solar, but we do expect everything that we do will feed back into the public domain and become available for lots of different uses downstream," Haupt said.

John Roach is a contributing writer for NBC News. To learn more about him, check out his website. For more of our Future of Technology series, watch the featured video below.