20091222 cielo wind 18
A Texas wind farm operated by Cielo Wind Power, which is receiving federal stimulus funds for a project involving Chinese companies. - 

Kai Ryssdal: You want to know which way the winds are blowing, you lick a finger and stick it up in the air. But when's the wind going to pick up? How hard will it blow, for how long?

If you want to make wind power work, those're the kinds of things you need to know. So Washington's trying to come up with answers. From the Marketplace Sustainability Desk, Eve Troeh reports.

Eve Troeh: If you're a weather freak, you know this voice.

NOAA: High's 95 to 100. South winds five to 10 miles an hour.

It's NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration -- their automated weather service. The robot gives general wind speed and direction a few times a day, usually from the nearest airport.

Melinda Marquis at NOAA's Earth Systems Research Lab says that's not good enough for wind power.

Melinda Marquis: No public entity regularly measures in the part of the atmosphere where wind turbines are operating.

About 300 to 400 feet off the ground. The lab's Wind Forecast Improvement Project -- you could call it WFIP -- will crunch wind data from turbines that're already up and running. It'll also test new sensors at two windy sites in the Dakotas and Texas.

Right now, utilities charge wind farms, in effect, an insurance premium because they can't guarantee how much power the wind will make. Jamie Webster at PFC Energy says a better wind forecast means less risk and lower prices.

Jamie Webster: The system operator can get a better sense of what other resources, you know, say natural gas or coal, need to be brought on line -- or not -- depending on how much wind is going to be available.

But you can't change when the wind blows. Webster says in many places, the strongest winds are just after sunrise, when power needs are low.

Webster: Early in the morning, I may have a coffee machine on, and that's about it.

He says knowledge is good. But technology to store wind power would really get the market spinning.

I'm Eve Troeh for Marketplace.

Follow Eve Troeh at @evetroeh