GIS Land Planning Software in Building Renewable Resource Infrastructure

Why Go Green?

Renewable energy has been a hotly debated topic for decades, but some question whether green energy truly has the capacity to power large populations. In many ways, this question has already been answered. Renewable energy increased 100% in the 18 years following 2000, making renewables the country’s fastest-growing energy source. As of today, renewables account for about 17% of the electricity generated in the United States.

The transition to green energy is taking place worldwide. According to Ovo Energy, China builds two wind turbines an hour, and Portugal was able to run on nothing but renewable energy for 107 hours straight in 2016. Even major players from the tech industry, including Apple, Google and Facebook, have joined the movement by agreeing to use renewable energy to power their corners of the internet.

Most people agree that renewable energy is a good thing, but finances usually take top priority when push comes to shove. There is a common misconception that green energy is too expensive to be feasible – but in reality, this isn’t usually the case. With the costs of installing and maintaining renewables dropping, green energy has never been cheaper (and it’s continuing in that direction). In fact, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency, renewables are most frequently the cheapest source of energy generation – even when they’re unsubsidized.

The challenge with renewable energy isn’t the energy itself, but where to generate it. Without GIS technology, finding spots with the right topography, climate and proximity to infrastructure that connects energy to densely populated areas is difficult at best and impossible at worst. With GIS land planning software, finding the ideal location is far more attainable: you can add a layer for every quality that suitable land requires.

Solar Farms

Every second, the giant ball of fire in the sky produces enough energy to power our planet for 500,000 years. Every hour, enough of that energy reaches the Earth to power society for one full year. The cost to install solar has dropped 70% in the last decade, and solar energy is becoming increasingly within reach for the general public. Twelve states and Washington D.C. are developing or already have programs to bring solar power to low-income areas. As solar energy becomes more affordable, the more in-demand it gets. The US currently has over 260,000 solar workers: effectively employing more people than the coal, oil and natural gas industries combined.

Solar Farm Location

Not all locations are well-suited for solar farms, but land planning software can help us find the places that are and map out the required infrastructure. Solar panels require a minimum of 4 hours of peak sunlight a day to be effective, peak sunlight meaning the solar irradiance must be at least 1,000 watts per square meter. This amount of light can be challenging to achieve if the land has buildings, trees or steep slopes shielding portions of it from the sun’s rays.

Like any new infrastructure, large-scale solar farms require a good deal of land; the general consensus is that you need roughly 100 square feet of land for every 1kW of solar panels. Beyond size, the property must meet a few more specifications. Typically, the flatter the ground is the better, but a mild slope facing east or south can maximize sun exposure. Unstable or rocky lands don’t make great solar farms; they can be challenging to get to, unpredictable and dangerous to build industrial structures on. We should also avoid floodplains and wetlands since they’re often protected ecosystems (and floods can destroy the electrical infrastructure).

Large, undeveloped farmland is often well-suited for solar power. This offers farmers and ranchers an appealing opportunity to dedicate part of their property to solar infrastructure. Solar farms can be easier to manage than crops, and the power they generate can bring a steady, reliable income.

Wind Farms

Turbines have been harnessing the wind’s power since their creation in 1888. Today, wind turbines can generate massive amounts of energy; one new turbine can save 900 cars worth of carbon each year. Just like solar, the wind industry is witnessing rapid growth. Between 2015 and 2016 alone, the number of people employed in the wind industry increased by a whopping 32%.

Wind Farm Location

Despite their massive size, wind turbines only need winds of around six to nine miles per hour to function. The wind turbines need to be at least seven rotor diameters apart; for utility-scale turbines, that’s more than a third of a mile apart. However, researchers from Johns Hopkins found that wind turbines are most effective about 15 rotors apart. Needless to say, wind farms need a lot of space. The cool thing about wind farms? The enormous stretches of land between the turbines can be used for farmland, livestock, or any number of other activities.

Typically speaking, wind farms do best in colder climates and can function between -20 and 50 degrees. This is because the low temperatures cause the air to be denser, creating more energy. The cold weather does pose a serious risk of ice throwing, also known as icing. This happens when a buildup of ice is flung off the turbine’s blades, endangering the people and infrastructures below.

Strong contenders for onshore wind farms include open fields, high places in the mountains or hills, and the edge of a water body. Though many places are suitable for wind farms, it’s still a good idea to use GIS land planning software to select a spot. Wind farms can generate massive amounts of energy, but that energy is useless if there isn’t a nearby substation to transform its voltage for distribution. Likewise, there needs to be adequate roads leading to the wind farm; if no one can reach a property, installation and maintenance would be virtually impossible. It’s not often the owner of a wind farm also owns all the nearby roads and properties, so they will likely need to acquire leases in order to access the relevant infrastructures.

To add another stipulation to the mix, wind farms can’t be too close to housing either. To put it simply, they’re annoying to live near. Wind turbines are noisy, and the blades can create a shadow flicker effect when they block the sun momentarily. That being said, there is little to no evidence suggesting they pose any danger to residents’ health and safety.

Though wind farms are designed to help the environment, poor planning could cause more harm than good. Similar to solar farms, wind turbines can’t be built on protected areas, such as national parks, conservations, and wetlands. You also need to take the local wildlife into consideration. Wind turbines are notorious for killing small animals such as birds and bats that collide with their rotating blades. Although this may not seem like too pressing an issue, 140,000 to 573,000 birds are killed by wind turbines each year. Land planning software can prevent this fatal mishap, as it allows users to analyze migration patterns and flight paths before building.

Renewable Resources Planning With Geospatial Databases

Whether you’re harnessing the power of the wind or the sun, GIS land planning software will be your greatest ally. Utility-scale renewable energy is carried through transmission lines, converted to a lower voltage, then sent through distribution lines to those who will use it (just like coal, nuclear power and natural gas). It’s relatively challenging to get new transmission lines approved, and even if you do, they’re costly and time-consuming to build.

This can be a major roadblock for developing renewable energy infrastructure; good locations for solar and wind farms tend to be remote areas with limited access to existing transmission lines. Even when rural areas have transmission lines, they often aren’t equipped to carry the massive amounts of power a utility-scale farm can produce. Unfortunately, this usually forces grid operators to dump excess energy.

With MapRight’s land planning software, you can add MapRight’s GIS layers to your map for all the necessary conditions (slope, land size, surface water features, soil types, etc.) and custom datasets regarding transmission infrastructure, climate, migration patterns and more. By selecting a fitting location with access to major transmission lines, you guarantee that space isn’t just viable for generating energy, but for sending it out as well.

Geospatial databases make culminating and analyzing complex data significantly more manageable, and with our layered maps, you can see all the relevant information in one place. Do you want to save green while going green? Start your 7-day free trial of MapRight today! We have all the resources you need to plan, locate and map your renewable energy projects.

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