What is the role of GIS and GPS in renewable energy development?

by Matt Ball on July 11, 2008

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This column is sponsored by ESRI

Wherever new infrastructure investments take place, there’s a strong need for geospatial technologies to plan, construct and monitor new developments. When it comes to renewable energy, the contribution of geospatial technologies is essential. Renewable energies derive power from earth systems, and GIS coupled with GPS is uniquely positioned to analyze and monitor these processes to make certain that renewable power generation sites are optimally sited, and that the power that is generated is delivered efficiently.

There’s a movement afoot to turn to renewable energy as the economic and security repercussions of peak oil are realized. The maximum rate of global petroleum extraction has been reached, and there is an accelerating global competition for this finite resource. Renewable energy has the capacity to cushion the economic repercussions of this looming crisis, and can do so with fewer environmental impacts.

The lower cost and more reliable sources of renewable energy are driving investments, but the environmental benefits are also a key consideration. With climate change increasingly impacting populations worldwide, renewable energies have a lighter carbon footprint and are a key element to reversing global warming. Increasingly, governments are turning to taxing businesses for their carbon outputs, as these new taxes take hold there will be a mass move to offset carbon emissions by turning to cleaner energy.

Determining Optimal Sites

GIS technology is the best tool to analyze and communicate optimal renewable energy sites. GIS provides the means to convert long-term weather observations of wind and sun to a map view, returning calibrated maps that show the best sites for renewable power generation investments.

Wind mapping is done on many different scales with different instruments. On a global scale, wind readings are determined from space by NASA’s QuikSCAT satellite. In the United States, the U.S. Department of Energy provides wind resource maps at both a national and state level. These maps assist in determining if the wind resources in your location are adequate to support a wind turbine or wind farm. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory provides a document as backup to their maps to illustrate how the maps were created and validated. Be sure to read, “Geographic Information Systems in Support of Wind Energy Activities at NREL (PDF),” in order to gain a broader understanding of the role of GIS in wind observations.

Solar mapping at a global scale was undertaken by NASA for the Group on Earth Observations, but I wasn’t able to find an online repository for this work. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory has a wealth of solar mapping tools, including GIS data and analysis tools. There are also localized solar mapping sites, such as the San Francisco Solar Map, which is a partnership between SF Environment and CH2M Hill. Each of these examples illustrates the interest and importance of mapping solar availability, yet since solar panels are still quite expensive, government incentives are proving to be much more of a driver for individual use rather than the potential to generate energy.

While the above maps for wind and solar power are largely aggregate maps to show the best average readings over time, there are dynamic maps that chart and follow these ever-changing variables over time. There are other renewable energies that can be mapped, such as hydro, geothermal and biomass, and they’re all cataloged on the this National Atlas page. There are also geographic considerations outside of simply the location for optimal power, such as population proximity to the energy source and the existence of infrastructure to transport the power.

Efficient Delivery and Use

The U.S. power infrastructure is in need of reform and refurbishment in order to increase efficiency and reduce wasted energy in the transmission process. A smart electric transmission grid is one promising technology. With a smart grid, the network is tied to smart meters that allow interactive connectivity for shutting down sections of the grid or individual sites if great demand occurs. In addition, the response of the grid can become automated for faster and more accurate response to changing conditions.

GIS technology play a key role in the smart grid strategy by first analyzing grid use and demand, and then aiding in the automation of grid response. Smart meters also allow for energy pricing based on time of use, which can reduce individual bills and cut peak demand. Smart meters allow utilities to spot outages, read usage, and connect and disconnect customers. In addition, the need for meter readers goes away, saving considerable manpower costs. A move is also underway by manufacturers to create smart appliances (dishwashers, dryers, refrigerators) that communicate with the smart meter to optimize energy savings.

Renewable energy options are abundant, but the performance of the various renewable energy options are variable based on location. This fact, coupled by the fact that populations may not be proximate to the source, means that geospatial analysis is needed to find the best fit for each community. Geospatial technologies are essential to the renewable energy decision making process, and ongoing and increasingly better observations about these energy sources will continue to improve the quality of the analysis and hence the performance of the power plants.

The move to renewable power is definitely on. One of the more striking examples of this is the massive investment that legendary Texas oil man T. Boone Pickens is making in wind power in the United States. Visit this site for details on the Pickens Plan, and be sure to view the video for discussions on geopolitical ramifications of our dependency on foreign oil.

Read what Jeff Thurston has to say on this subject here.

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