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March 1st, 2009
GIS, Sustainability and the Winds of Change

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America’s first-ever climate change president, Barack Obama is making substantial changes in the way we approach energy, the environment, and our economy. These changes will impact how we manage where our energy comes from (the supply side) and how we use it (the demand side). This will not only affect the future of our economy and our national security, it will also have tremendous influence on the sustainability of our country and planet.

America’s first-ever climate change president, Barack Obama is making substantial changes in the way we approach energy, the environment, and our economy. These changes will impact how we manage where our energy comes from (the supply side) and how we use it (the demand side). This will not only affect the future of our economy and our national security, it will also have tremendous influence on the sustainability of our country and planet. 

On the supply side, the U.S. is very dependant on nonrenewable, carbon-intense resources such as petroleum energy imports (only 3% of the world’s petroleum reserves are in the U.S.) and domestic coal resources (the U.S. has the largest proven coal reserves in the world). Fossil fuels make up about 85% of our energy supply and are responsible for America’s estimated 7-billion-ton annual greenhouse gas (GHG) footprint. In contrast, renewable energy sources represent less than 7% . On the demand side we needlessly consume substantial energy resources that could be avoided by taking some simple steps to change our behavior so that we use energy resources more efficiently.

To make America’s energy mix more sustainable, we need to include a much larger proportion of renewable and cleaner energy solutions including wind, solar, hydropower, geothermal, biomass, ocean, and nuclear resources. Fortunately, we are already seeing a surge in development of renewable energy projects due in part to high energy prices, the extension of Federal Production Tax Credits, Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS), and increased public interest. For example, over 8,300 megawatts of wind generation—enough to power the equivalent of more than two million American households annually—was installed in the United States in 2008 alone.

However, due to the lower energy output and less consistent delivery of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar, as compared to conventional fossil fuel–fired power plants, a substantial change in our energy mix will take time. For example, wind turbines typically can generate between 1.5 to 3 megawatts and wind farms themselves can output around 80 to 300 megawatts but may deliver only a third of that on average. In comparison, coal-fired power plants have capacity to consistently deliver 500 megawatts. Nonetheless, with President Obama’s commitment to make 10% of our energy mix renewable by 2012 we can expect substantial progress in the near future.

GIS Highlight: Wind Project Development

GIS plays an important role in renewable project development, especially in the planning and design stages, because it helps developers understand and meet the environmental requirements to achieve project success. For example, GIS is used during wind farm critical issues analyses for project siting studies, environmental and economic impact analyses, permitting support, thematic and classification mapping, geospatial-temporal modeling, habitat change detection and baseline mapping, determination of slope stability and erosion potential, spread function modeling, and network analysis.

Ecology and Environment, Inc., (E & E) uses GIS technology for critical issues analysis and siting studies to identify, map, and quantify potential obstacles that could significantly hinder or prevent projects from being permitted or constructed.  This involves broad preliminary environmental screening for potential site flaws such as location of major airports; local moratoriums; large-scale protected areas (e.g., wildlife areas, state parks, tribal lands); prohibitive geologic features; and other major land use constraints.  These issues are assessed relative to optimal wind resources in the region.  The resources are mapped to show their location relative to the project location and impact tables are generated to quantify impacts.  Alternatives are then generated to mitigate or minimize impacts to/from the preferred or proposed project location. 

The critical issues analysis also highlights the primary permitting issues that are likely to have the greatest effect on project siting, schedule, and cost. E & E’s GIS analysts work with the firm’s project engineers during the facility layout phase of the project, including establishment of access roads, turbine locations, and transmission/collection lines, to maximize the wind resource within the project area while adhering to established setbacks from local residences, roads, and other identified critical features.  Use of GIS supports the project through modification of the initial layout of the turbines to minimize environmental impacts, including wetlands/streams, land use, visual impacts, risks to threatened and endangered species, and avian and bat populations.

For field mapping, E & E’s GIS staff developed customized mobile mapping applications using ESRI ArcPad software for use with Trimble hand-held units and Global Positioning Systems (GPS). This streamlines our field data collection procedures for wetland delineations, wind farm design and layout, and biological data. In turn, this helps reduce client costs and increase data quality and data capture speed over traditional paper/logbook-based data collection by directly integrating quality controlled field data into a central GIS project database.
 
Many wind sites require the preparation of environmental assessments and environmental impact statements (EISs) in accordance with state and federal requirements as well as joint applications to state environmental regulatory agencies and the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers to meet Clean Water Act requirements.  Our staff supports clients in preparation of these documents, and we use GIS for habitat mapping, visual and noise impact assessments, and wetland delineations to address a full range of environmental concerns.  We also assess geology/soil resources, vegetation and wildlife, water quality, archaeological and cultural resources, environmentally sensitive areas, socioeconomics, transportation, and existing infrastructure/utilities.

E & E’s GIS analysts also have the capability to generate visual simulations of what prospective project sites would look like once constructed and conduct shadow flicker studies using WindPRO software. The computer-generated visual simulations show preferred project alternatives from several vantage points to support evaluations of the visual character of the surrounding area and impact for each project. This is an important consideration because wind turbines can be over 400 feet high with blades over 150 feet long, casting a shadow over thousands of feet. Detailed datasets are manipulated to simulate physical features of each project site (topography, viewshed, weather conditions, digital photographs, and imagery, etc.).  The images are typically used in public meetings and permitting applications.

 

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