GIS and GPS have a significant role in supporting the development
and expansion of the renewable energy sector involving biomass,
geothermal, solar, wind and hydro/wave types. The most obvious
applications involve site location but other applications extend to
meteorological forecasting, spatial/network analysis, geospatial
modeling, facilities management and economic analysis-forecasting.
Basic siting and locality
In some ways we can think of the relationship between GIS / GPS and
renewable energy as some of the most integrated and multi-disciplinary
due the fact that they not only involve physical resources and their
operation, but also because they are dependent upon naturally occurring
circumstances – which we need to understand, manage and consider more
closely if they are to be optimised.
initial applications for GIS and GPS involve siting. Wind generators
operate best when they can be oriented to those places where the wind
levels are more continuous. Having lots of wind is nice, but having it
generate power throughout the day is more often one of the key
objectives. Knowing where to locate wind generators is highly related
to having the best topographic information available. Similarly, solar
collectors are best oriented to the south with an unobstructed view.
Naturally there is more sun closer to the equator as well as in places
of higher altitude. While areas with higher wave activity are
geographically located in many places already, these places are often
determined from marine charts and maps. There are known areas of
biomass production around the world.
The setting of targets for renewable energy production has been a
current point of debate – most recently this past week in Wales at the
largest renewable energy conference there. The distributed nature of
wind farms ensures a ready need for siting and location tools and
Scotland is another example where wind development across the landscape
is ongoing and rapidly developing. A trip to Germany and traveling to
the north will present hundreds of wind generators strewn across the
landscape. GIS / GPS can be used for siting purposes and analyzing most
forms of renewable energy.
Spatial analysis and modeling
The development of renewable sources of energy is not likely to proceed
alone in the future. Oil and gas will continue to provide large amounts
of energy. However, just as spatial tools are now used for
non-renewable sources of energy production and management, they can
also be extended and expanded for renewable energy sources.
In this scenario, current users of GIS and GPS in these industries
will find that they need to supplement their tools to support landscape
variables related to renewable energy. New data dictionary’s, inclusion
of soil and geological data gathering tools, climate and sensor device
interfaces and other equipment may also be needed and required.
From a spatial analysis perspective, the rates and amounts of energy
will need to be calculated, integrated and managed with non-renewable
forms of energy sources. GPS will support not only the siting of wind
towers and solar arrays, but the service equipment to support them as
well as the location of networked infrastructure itself.
Climate modeling will grow in importance as renewable energy sources
are increased, which will be linked to imagery and aerial sources of
information, all connected to sensors. The huge amounts of data that
will need to be processed will all have to be handled and processed,
perhaps through remote or distributed networks as data is fused and
integrated, rejected or accepted and selected and matched as needed.
GPS will more precisely locate where data is collected and it might
very well be the case that we see moving sensors, which monitor,
crawling the landscape to support this work – all GPS enabled.
Thinking beyond the box
The future holds the promise of sustainability as a link to energy
flows. As we move into the future it is realistic to expect building
sensors to monitor buildings across whole blocks, towns and cities as
continuous flows. But, if current images and ideas come true, we can
expect buildings to contribute energy as well, and for localized groups
of people to produce energy and contribute toward a wider GRID too.
Thus, a deeper understanding about monitoring energy and managing it
across networks and locally will be needed. All of this would require
spatial analysis tools, operated locally, by lots of more people – all
of whom would not know (or care) how it all works, only that it does.
In other words, the evolution of energy production and use will
evolve and be supported by spatial tool sets that operate across
networks in multi-modal ways. To understand how and where energy is
being produced and used will mean that we understand the processes more
closely and be willing to manage energy more closely too. Why can’t a
building have windows that are solar collectors or reflecting energy on
those around them? How can wave energy be stored and what are the
optimum times for using it? How do you balance 20 city blocks and all
the non-renewable and renewable energy types within it, optimally? Is a
green building only an energy saver, or is it an optimised energy
producer? Which transportation systems move the most people using the
least energy across certain landscapes? When a train moves it produces
wind – and where does that energy go?
The promise of GIS and GPS in renewable energy
GIS and GPS will have an expanding role to play in a renewable energy
world. They will assist in the development of technologies that harness
maximal energy creation at the lowest cost for the widest and the most
effective impact in a sustainable sense. We will not only be able to
site renewable energy forms, but these tools and data will enable
deeper integration in the understanding of energy development and use.
The optimization of energy distribution and creation will become more
perfected using these tools. We can already see this beginning in the
many rough maps that are circulating within the renewable energy sector.
More advanced GIS and GPS applications will work in 3D applications,
be linked to financial tools and automated management systems for
critical infrastructure. I think we will begin to see this as a
specialised field of study in the near future, with special courses and
tool sets also tied in.
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
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
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
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
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