“Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” That was a statement by Charles Dudley Warner, an associate of Mark Twain.
That is not quite true these days. Right here in the Northeast Kingdom, Dr. Jason Shafer is the co-founder and president of Northview Weather, LLC, one of the two anchor start-up tech companies at Do North Coworking in Lyndonville.
Northview Weather provides up-to-the-minute outage prediction data to Green Mountain Power (GMP) and other companies. His company also helps field personnel track possible weather impacts, allowing them to respond quickly and safely.
Growing up in New Jersey, Shafer has made a career in research predicting severe weather events here in the Northeast Kingdom. After receiving his Ph.D. from the University of Utah in 2005, Shafer came to Northern Vermont University at Lyndon in the Fall of 2005. He is a full-time faculty member in the Atmospheric Science department and teaches courses in weather analysis, forecasting, communication, and applications to industry.
“I was very confused when I heard the term flatlander after moving from a place with much larger mountains,” he said. “I moved here because I wanted to teach people how to forecast the weather in a place with four seasons and mountains, and that hasn’t disappointed yet. The NEK is beautiful, and I enjoy the seasons and being active outdoors.”
“At NVU-Lyndon, interest is strong in the Atmospheric Science program,” Shafer said. “We have the largest undergraduate program in New England.”
Much of his research deals with snow, ice, and wind and how it impacts the electric grid. Vermont has seen five of its biggest and most damaging storms in the past ten years, according to Kristin Kelly at Green Mountain Power.
“The 2010s were a particularly intense decade of extreme storm activity, featuring Tropical Storm Irene (Aug 2011), significant wet snowstorms (Dec 2014, Nov 2018), and wind storms (Oct 2017, Nov 2019),” said Shafer. “Climate change is influencing weather activity to produce storms that are warmer and wetter. In fact, wet snowstorm risks account for the majority of increases in power outage risks - a good example of this was the Jan 16, 2021 wet snowstorm. Mid-winter is typically a fairly resilient time of the year for the power grid and outages, but with fall and early winter warming, the outage season is expanding into winter. This past December was a lot more like November and January a lot more like December.”
Kerrick Johnson, Vermont Electric Power Company, Inc. (VELCO) chief innovation and communications officer, has been working with Shafer for more than a decade. Shafer’s company uses their trademark predictive computer programming, “OutageRisk” and “SkyRisk” to supply risk data for storms bringing snow, rain, ice, and wind. Whether it will be heavy, wet snow, ice, light snow, high winds or a storm will pass by the area, this is information that is needed, beforehand, to have the equipment and skilled personnel in place to keep the lights on for electric customers.
“Dr. Shafer is a gem of national stature in our own backyard,” said Johnson.
Getting his business started in the remote Northeast Kingdom came with a few challenges, according to Shafer.
“Starting a technology business in a place without a strong culture and presence around technology feels isolating,” he said. “I’ve accepted being very much on my own and to focus on our customers and small team. The sense of community and support available in the NEK and across Vermont is great. It feels like there are many cheerleaders who want you to succeed.”
He said growing his business continues to have challenges, including access to capital.
“Most people don’t seem to understand what we do well enough to want to take a risk on supporting what we do with investments or loans,” he said.
Northview Weather’s predictions are important for renewable sources as well. Renewable energy has an even greater sensitivity to weather, with solar and wind energy generation at the mercy of the sun and wind. Smart energy demand requires knowledge about future weather conditions. Vermont’s Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) required all Vermont electric utilities to have 55 percent of their power supply come from renewable sources. The renewable requirement increases over time until it reaches 75 percent in 2032.
Peter Rossi, chief operating officer at Vermont Electric Coop, a nonprofit based in Johnson, lists three major topics in modern facilities providing electricity: resiliency, reliability, and predictability. All three are tied to predictive data connections regarding weather events that impact renewable energy (wind, solar, hydro) as well as the rest of the power grid.
“Weather variability is what makes our job interesting and challenging,” Shafer said. “We are currently conducting the most comprehensive Vermont-wide assessment of historic weather trends and climate change projections to better understand how power outage risks may be shifting. Our results show the fall and early winter season continuing to feature the most damaging storms, and that storms have gotten more severe, being warmer and wetter due to global warming and climate change.”
Shafer expects storm intensity will continue to increase as the climate continues to warm and express itself through extreme weather events.
Shafer is also the local coordinator for Community Collaborative Rain, Hail, and Snow Network. “CoCoRaHS” is a non-profit, community-based network of volunteers of all ages and backgrounds working together to measure and map precipitation. The organization is in all 50 states plus Canada, Puerto Rico, and The Bahamas.
In Shafer’s work as a local coordinator, he assists local volunteers in their quest to accurately record daily weather observations, especially rain, hail, and snow. These daily observations are posted to the organization’s website early in the morning. The data is then used by multiple weather outlets across the country including the National Weather Service. Shafer helps provide the physical tools, such as certified rain gauges and snow rulers, as well as assisting volunteers with technical advice to accurately record the daily data from their stations.
In Vermont, there are, on average, about 50 volunteers who record their daily weather data using the tools and guidelines provided by CoCoRaHs coordinators like Shafer.
When asked what his goals are for Northview Weather, Shafer said, “We will continue to develop technologies that help the electric grid be smarter around weather with day-to-day operations and long-term planning. This will include both dark-sky storm days and blue-sky days. We are developing technology that will help with the integration of solar power energy into grid operations, for day-to-day energy resource management and other applications. The electric grid needs to become more flexible, better following weather-sensitive applications such as renewables. We want to be one of the leaders helping to advance this technology. I’d love to have Northview with 25 employees in Lyndonville in 3-5 years.”