Building a power plant? Start with a good map!

By John Arnold

Cartographers say man's earliest maps were based on personal familiarity with local terrain.They showed routes to neighboring tribes, where water and food might be found, and the locations of enemies and other dangers.As Homo sapiens moved out of Africa, maps became more informative and covered wider areas.They pointed out the best paths across deserts and mountains, where nomads should go when summer and winter approached, and which oases and migratory animals they could expect to encounter en route.

Until the 20th century, maps on paper guided explorers to all but the remote corners of the planet.Then, satellites and geographic information systems and technology (GIS/GIT) took cartography electronic. Today, we may not be as concerned about neighboring tribes, food, and enemies as we used to be.But maps on paper and in electronic form still play a crucial role in the planning of manmade structures like power plants--a process called plant siting.

Hardly bearish on maps
For global energy companies like Dallas-based Panda Energy International, plant siting is an especially crucial activity. Panda owns or is part owner of several operating power stations in the U.S., as well as one in Nepal.But it also has over 11,000 MW of capacity in various stages of development in the U.S.and the world.Maps outnumber PCs in its headquarters by a large margin.

Until October 2000, a typical plant siting process at Panda Energy used paper maps to help determine the best place to put a power project."This was an extremely manual process.It required weeks to research the adequacy of supporting infrastructure, followed by months of travel to verify the findings," explains Lori Alsobrook, Panda's business development coordinator.

'What POWERmap provides are various infrastructure and geographical data bases implemented in a layered GIS mapping environment'

What makes a potential plant site attractive to Panda's researchers and field teams is the existence of gas pipelines and transmission grids nearby.The former assure that fuel can be delivered, while the latter assure that the electricity to be generated has somewhere to go.However, the mere existence of these infrastructures isn't enough. Local gas pipelines must be of sufficient size, and the local transmission grid must run at a high enough voltage.If either infrastructure lacked sufficient capacity, Panda would have to build its own, and that could make a proposed project uneconomic.Such considerations dominate plant siting not just in developing countries, but in indus- trialized nations as well.

Manual mapping too slow
To meet its ambitious global expansion goals, Panda Energy realized it would have to shorten the time required to site a plant.If it didn't, competing developers could beat it to the punch. To get started, Panda looked first to revolutionize its domestic plant siting process by automating it.To do that in early 2000, the company selected the POWERmap product from Resource Data International (RDI), Boulder, Colo.(a division of Platts, a unit of The McGraw-Hill Companies).POWERmap is a desktop mapping system that contains map layers and key statistical data for North American energy markets.

Alsobrook says, "We selected POWERmap because we know of no other vendor whose infrastructure data bases have the layers of geodata needed to support power plant siting in the U.S."
RDI added POWERmap to Panda's corporate information network in October 2000 as a turnkey installation.No outside systems integrators were needed, and the help of only two of Panda's IT staff was required. RDI trained Panda's users as well.According to Alsobrook, "the product requires minimal support and maintenance to keep it running; one part-time administrator/power user is enough.POWERmap is very inexpensive to operate and maintain, and we find it ideal for a small developer like us."

Mapping the results
"What POWERmap provides are various infrastructure and geographical data bases implemented in a layered GIS mapping environment," Alsobrook continues."It allows the user to switch layers on and off, customize the display to filter out or highlight specific infrastructure items, and view maps of the geography, topography, and infrastructure elements--gas lines, water lines, bodies of water, railroads, roads, electric transmission lines and substations--of a particular location.By correlating the filtering, switching, and mapping against our plant siting criteria, we can quickly determine exactly where the optimal site is," she explains.

Alsobrook's solution also integrates with U.S. Geological Survey maps gives Panda a much more precise view of the geography and topography of a particular area."This is a very powerful feature," Alsobrook adds."What's more, the quarterly updates made available on the Internet keep the maps extremely up-to-date and make POWERmap unique."

A leg up
Alsobrook says Panda's use of POWERmap has reduced the company's plant siting times and cut travel expenses at the front end of several project development efforts.These benefits, she adds, have allowed Panda to compete with much larger and well-heeled private power developers."In our business, speed and economic efficiency often spell the difference between a successful and a failed project."

Panda is so pleased with POWERmap that it has already integrated it with two other RDI products, POWERdat and NewGen, which provide information on other companies' power projects."POWERdat gives us more detailed data on competitors that already have plants in a particular area, while NewGen lists new generation planned or under development in an area," Alsobrook explains.

Mapping the future
While the for new power plants may have cooled recently, Panda sees the desktop mapping software as a tool that will allow them to work much smarter in a tighter market."We will continue to use mapping to screen for potential power plant sites, to help finance our projects, and to sell the electricity from our existing plants," says Alsobrook.

Published Sunday, May 19th, 2002

Written by John Arnold

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