Using GIS to map a favorable future for renewable projects

Using GIS to map a favorable future for renewable projects

When officials finally broke ground on a new transmission line last September, it marked over 11 years since the project was initially “fast-tracked” to deliver electricity from a wind farm in New Mexico to consumers in Arizona and California.

The long delay will surprise no one familiar with building energy projects in America today. Even though demand for electricity is expected to jump as much as 19% this decade, transmission lines are expanding at a rate of just 1% a year.

Bridging this gap between soaring demand and lagging supply will be key to keeping the lights on in the years to come. Fortunately, technology can help, and one of the solutions is Geospatial Information Systems, or GIS.

GIS can be used to collect data about potential routes for new transmission lines, and then analyzes that data to map routes with the lowest costs and fewest regulatory hurdles.

It’s also useful for siting wind and solar projects as well as other vital infrastructure. Together with data storage and analysis, GIS can play a key role in ensuring more energy projects are completed on time and under budget.

Mapping the land

When a transmission line is proposed, an obvious challenge lies with the physical terrain. From featureless plains to soaring mountains, America’s landscape is unquestionably beautiful, but along with the many waterways, marshes and forests, it also presents a number of serious engineering problems.

This goes beyond skirting a lake or avoiding steep slopes. GIS can also be used to flag areas prone to earthquakes and floods, while highlighting potential issues with the rock and soil.

One such issue emerged with a new stretch of highway that was carved through central Pennsylvania over a decade ago. It ran into a seam of toxic pyritic rock left over from a 35-million-year-old meteor impact—and the result was an $83 million bill and a long delay.

It’s just one example of the unexpected—and expensive—surprises that modern GIS analysis can help avoid today. And the benefits of this analysis aren’t confined to geography alone.

Untangling the laws

America’s diverse physical terrain is a challenge. But the legal terrain facing developers can often be more difficult to navigate.

The country is a complicated patchwork of landowners involving different levels of government, sovereign Tribal Nations and private citizens, among others. Every stakeholder usually has their own ideas on how the land is to be used.

Unsurprisingly, complex legal entanglements can lead to severe delays. One study found that of the more than 50 large renewable projects disrupted between 2008 and 2021, about half of those projects were eventually canceled permanently.

To help overcome these obstacles, GIS can weigh the degree of constraints with cost and schedule implications along each proposed route, while also detailing the implications involving wildlife, the environment, and important cultural resources such as ancient burial sites and historical monuments.

Other uses for GIS

GIS is proving to be a powerful solution for mapping future transmission lines, but its potential doesn’t end there. Analysts are increasingly using GIS to locate the best sites for wind farms and solar parks, which face many of the same geographical and legal challenges.

Beyond pinpointing locations with the highest wind speeds and most solar exposure, GIS analysts can shortlist sites that are near ideal routes for a transmission line and away from areas that will trigger regulatory roadblocks.

The same goes for transportation; whether it’s a local street, a state highway, or a new railway. By using GIS to collect and analyze a wealth of data about proposed projects, both developers and governments can avoid unexpected costs, delays, and even cancellations in the years ahead.

Experts from ICF will also be available to discuss our capabilities with GIS analysis at the Siting + Permitting Conference hosted by American Clean Power on March 11-13 in Colorado Springs, CO.

Meet the authors
  1. Elizabeth Diller, Vice President, Energy Lead

    Elizabeth has over two decades of experience partnering with clients to provide National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) compliance strategies. View bio

  2. Brent Read, Senior GIS Analyst

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