The Growing Role of GIS for Renewable Energy

How GIS is Used to Map Renewable Energy Resources

Imagine taking a road trip and as you’re driving, you come across wind turbine after wind turbine. There’s dozens of them on either side of you as you’re driving past fields and farm land. Why are they there? And how was it decided that wind turbines should be placed there? Chances are GIS technology helped project planners make this decision.

With a global focus on climate change, there is a significant need for renewable energy sources like solar, wind, water, and thermal energy. As great as renewable energy is, it can’t be used everywhere.

The question is, why not?

Let’s take the state of Colorado as an example. While the state was a prime candidate for solar and wind energy, the challenge was finding specific locations that have high enough wind speeds and sun penetration. On top of that, planners had to cut out locations that weren’t close enough to large populations and distribution centers that would make the delivery of renewable energy cost effective. GIS technology helped narrow down where to build wind and solar farms.

With GIS technology and mapping, policymakers and planning commissions can more easily determine the right location for renewable energy. This is because GIS allows for deep analysis of wind potential, solar potential, distance to cities, population size, and type of land cover. GIS can even tell project planners the social and environmental impact, like if habitats or migratory patterns would be harmed from the building of a renewable energy plant in that area. All this information offers a clear picture of which locations would be best to implement renewable energy resources versus those that would be a waste of resources and money.

In Colorado’s case, planners were able to analyze wind speeds and determine that the best locations for wind farms were in the northeast part of the state. After reviewing solar radiation levels and temperature trends, they were then able to determine that east of Denver was the best spot for solar power plants.

GIS technology’s impact can also be felt on a global scale, giving policymakers and planners the ability to examine renewable energy potential across entire continents. The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) used a GIS approach to make initial estimates of Africa’s renewable energy potential. In its 2014 report, IRENA reported that GIS analysis showed that eastern and northern Africa have the largest potential for solar and wind applications, while the equatorial region offers the most significant potential for biofuel resources.

GIS is playing a large role in determining where to focus renewable energy efforts and how best to manage them. This technology highlights the potential for sustainable energy resources, shows data of the actual use of that particular energy source in question, land analyses, and where planners should design renewable energy power plants.