El Niño Forecasting Model Could Save Millions In Energy Costs

November 18, 1997

GAINESVILLE --- A computerized forecasting model designed to predict more accurately the financial impact of El Niño weather patterns could save millions of dollars in energy costs in affected countries, including the United States, says a University of Florida professor who helped create the model.

To better prepare small nations in South and Central America for a shortage of water for their hydroelectricity supply during the next El Niño, scientists developed a method to predict reductions in stream flow, said Peter Waylen, a UF geography professor and member of the international team of researchers.

In the past, decisions to conserve the water supply were based simply on experience and estimations.

"I think this model will be one of the first times a forecast can be translated into economic costs," Waylen said. "We're hoping to establish these procedures in Colombia, Panama and Costa Rica for the next El Niño."

More than half of the power supply for these three countries comes from hydroelectricity. Waylen said Costa Rica and Panama each rely on one powerful reservoir that produces more than 30 percent of the hydro power.

During a normal year in this region of Latin America, the heavy rainy season from June through October feeds the reservoirs that supply the nations' power sources. During an El Niño year, however, the rains are reduced, Waylen said.

"When that reservoir is depleted, the only choice is to import oil," Waylen said "You can see how tenuous the national power supply is in these countries. There is no cheap alternative; they have to import oil."

The model also could be applied for future El Niño years to regions in the United States that depend on hydroelectric power. Waylen said 13 percent of the United States's energy is derived from hydroelectricity, which translates into 500 million barrels of oil annually.

"According to the experts, if we increase our efficiency in hydro power by just 1 percent, we could save 4.9 million barrels of oil," he said. "That is $90 million for every 1 percent in increased efficiency."

El Niño is a cyclical change in patterns of Pacific Ocean water temperatures and winds. Every three to seven years, warm ocean waters that normally stay west of the international date line move eastward to the coast of South America. Jet stream winds are altered, and storms disrupt weather as far away as Africa.

This year's El Niño is comparable to that of 1982-83, which caused billions of dollars in damage around the world, Waylen said.

"Rainfall in Panama is down by 39 percent compared to the yearly average, and the government has already tried to reduce electricity consumption and outflow of water from the reservoirs by 30 percent so they don't run out by January," he said.

Waylen has been working on the project with engineering professors from the National University of Colombia at Medellin, the head of the hydrology branch at the Costa Rican Electricity Institute and the head of hydro-meteorology department at the Institute for Hydrologic Resources and Electrification in Panama.


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University of Florida

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