Energy Landscapes for Today and the Future

By Thomas Blaschke, Markus Biberacher, Sabine Gadocha, Ingrid Schardinger, Helena Merschdorf

Renewable energy will play a crucial role for the future society of the 21st century. The various energy sources need to be utilized in a balanced and well thought-out manner in order to ensure supply stability. One such source of renewable energy production may be biomass. Biomass requires large cultivation areas, leaving a larger spatial footprint per produced unit of energy compared to other renewable energy carriers such as solar energy. This article critically examines whether a massive expansion in the use of biomass will allow us to construct future “energy landscape” scenarios. It thereby seeks to provide a bridge between energy modeling and spatial planning by integrating research and techniques from the energy modeling domain with geographic information science. 
Demand for renewable energy sources 
While the desirability of renewable energy is not in doubt, comprehensive assessments of its sustainability, including energy production, transportation and consumption are presently rare. The use of such energy sources and their transportation may place considerable strain on the environment, raising issues regarding the sustainability of present and future consumption patterns. In contrast to fossil fuels, renewable energy sources of one type or another can typically be found at almost any location on the Earth’s surface. The broad spectrum of renewable energy resources, as well as their spatio-temporal variation, complicates the energy system and challenges the stability of an energy grid. 
In recent years, biomass has become an increasingly important source of renewable energy, promising to evoke a fundamental shift in the geopolitics of energy production and consumption. This shift is evident in many regions with a high biomass production potential that now aim toward becoming oil and gas independent, and green fuel exporters. In 2009, the European Union (EU) introduced the Renewable Energy Directive with the overall objectives of increasing the security of energy supplies and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. In terms of bioenergy, it set the practical goal of a 5.75% bio-fuel share of the total fuel consumption. The large cultivation areas necessary for cultivating these biomass crops decrease the land surface available for nature reserves and for traditional agriculture or forestry, a cause of concern for many. Problems include the conversion of cropland (especially perennial crops) to biomass crops, leading to increased diversity in cropping patterns and lower input uses, but also resulting in higher structural landscape diversity, which may have positive direct or indirect effects on biodiversity. For forestry, the harvesting of logging residues in a sustainable manner is possible if properly managed. It remains controversial whether or not nature reserves should contribute to biomass production under particular management controls. The use of abandoned agricultural land may restore land-use-dependent biodiversity. 
Although forestry and agricultural areas provide the majority of biomass energy resources, there are significant potential land resources for biomass cultivation that may have less impact on biodiversity, including: 
  • street plantations and roadside verges 
  • urban greens
  • recreation areas 
  • waste dumps and contaminated sites 
These “additional” types of areas – as compared to the mainstream debate focusing on forestry and agriculture – are supposedly less problematic in terms of their impacts on biodiversity, since removal of biomass is part of their normal maintenance. Conversion of removed biomass into energy or other products increases the economic efficiency of the management of these areas, as well as including improvements to environmental quality, with indirect positive effects on biodiversity at a local level. 

Figure 1. Energy Landscapes

Ecosystem services, energy landscapes and spatial planning

Ecosystems and (energy) landscapes are both complex subjects which have in recent years been the focus of many scholars. Academic discussions upon the matter have resulted in a general consensus regarding its major principles, such as hierarchy theory. Recent frameworks translate ecological complexity (structures and processes) into a more limited number of ecosystem functions, which in turn provide the goods and services valued by humans. Although somewhat disputed, the term “ecosystem functions” commonly refers to the benefits derived by humans from the properties and processes of ecosystems. Until now, spatial planning and energy modeling have been treated as two separate domains, whereby the energy industry has largely neglected geospatial aspects in modeling possible future energy systems and solutions. In turn, spatial planning rarely deals with “energy spaces” in terms of, for example, reserving space for future energy corridors and for “space-consuming” generation of renewable energies, such as biomass production.
GIS-based biomass modeling in time and space 
Geographic Information Systems (GISs) are today considered to be a mature technology. The consumer community, as well as decision and policy makers, have realized the importance of making sound decisions based on information derived from properly designed geospatial databases. Such databases and spatial data infrastructures (SDIs) are being implemented on an organizational through to global level, and the consuming public is becoming increasingly aware of the benefits of geospatial information. In contrast to earlier GISs, which were in essence separately designed, stand-alone systems for a variety of purposes, todays GISs have grown into mainstream IT frameworks, applications and workflows, providing efficient techniques for representing a wide variety of data in a manner that is “natural” to humans. In this sense, we describe a framework for geographic representation that uses GIS as the baseline technology, with the objective of allowing explicit consideration of the spatial and temporal domains within the energy context by making the underlying assumptions and rules explicit. 
Energy modeling is often based on general systems theory, providing a conceptual framework in which systemic entities can be organized. Such an organizational structure results in spatial patterns, which form the key to understanding the systemic properties if they are mapped and their configurations analyzed.  This concept has been applied to the development of “autarchic energy regions” [1]. Biberacher [1] presented a top-down modeling approach to estimate the potentials for several different renewable energy sources. These theoretical potentials are based on topography, climate, land use and many other factors. The estimated theoretical potentials are subsequently reduced to technical potentials by taking into account the technical limitations of state-of-the-art technology, for example, slope steepness or certain land-use classes. By using rather soft factors which can be modified over time, and that may vary regionally, the potential can be further reduced to a realizable figure and the development and deployment of the individual energy sources can be integrated guided by expert-defined assumptions. Through the use of GIS areal data, for example, values for whole municipalities and spatially explicit data in the form of vectors or raster can be integrated.
Remote sensing methods are widely used to estimate biomass. The combination of remote sensing derived information, in situ information, and a variety of GIS data stored in spatial data infrastructures allows the spatio-temporal modeling of both supply and demand and, most challengingly, the inclusion of transportation factors and even “complete” life cycle assessments of energy products. When employed for biomass modeling, this approach allows the illustration, assessment and optimization of biomass utilization paths, ranging from the availability of biomass cultivation areas to their utilization for either food or energy. Climatologic, economic, social and ecologic factors are taken into account and future development scenarios can be developed, with a special focus on climate change.
Integrating the human dimension to the energy landscape concept
The concept of an energy landscape may appear vague and difficult to grasp, as it is differently perceived in various disciplines. A large body of literature elaborates that the term landscape does not simply refer to the environment, but to the world “as perceived by people” (European Landscape Convention, Article 1a). This widely-accepted understanding allows the concept of landscape to be used to make connections between people, between people and places, and between society and its environment. To date, the concept has not widely been used in connection with energy planning. The authors, however, herein suggest that the concept of an energy landscape may be useful in dealing with the challenges regarding renewable energy production that face society in the 21st century. The closest connections between energy research and the landscape concept were attempts for “autarchic energy regions” or “virtual power plants.” We suggest putting forward the basic concept of “virtual” worlds in which people can create identities and social interactions.  
In order to comprehensively understand the concept of energy landscapes, it is essential to differentiate between the notion of landscapes and regions. While the concept of a region may vary slightly depending on disciplinary background, regions are often seen as places of resistance to centralized authority. This concept of a region does not, however, necessarily coincide with the concept of a landscape, namely the composite of human imprints on the Earth’s surface. In general, the concept of landscape encompasses more than an area of land with a certain use or function and can thereby be seen in a broader sense than that of a region. This insight directly translates to the concepts of energy landscapes and energy regions.
Case studies
The renewable energy carriers currently being used in Austria (biomass, geothermal, photovoltaic and wind) were spatially assessed and systematically modeled in an Austria-wide integrative approach, aiding a regional prioritization of energy carriers within planning programs. The modeling process follows a top-down approach, whereby the theoretical potential for each energy carrier is calculated, followed by their technically available potentials and finally, by modeling their restricted technical potentials in various different scenarios. Expert opinions vary widely and may even be contradictory. Several strategies were, however, developed in this nationwide study on the basis of a consensus-finding process. Within these strategies, favorable spatial planning instruments were assigned for implementation. Those energy carriers that could be most effectively influenced by the appropriate strategy were given precedence. Two strategies that developed as examples within this project were (a) legal regulation options for climate protection, and (b) coordinating existing spatial planning regulations. All strategies were based on expert valuations and their realizations in GIS. Figure 2 depicts a technical biomass energy potential for Austria aggregated to 250m cells (raster in background) and for districts (with circles at their geographic centers, and circle sizes representing the absolute biomass potential). Translated from: [2].

Figure 2. Technical biomass energy potential for Austria

The same methodology was also applied to other regions such as the district of Oldenburg in Northern Germany, where the biomass potential and other energy potentials were determined for 69.000 ha of agricultural land and 20.000 ha of forests. Both potentials were calculated independently, following the method of Biberacher [1] while deriving the agricultural biomass potential under exclusion of protected areas. Such resulting biomass potential represents the total amount of biomass used for nutrition, animal feed, energy and materials, and not to a surplus potential. 
The concept of "energy landscapes", which was comprehensively discussed in this article, can be utilized to establish a crucial link between physics-based views on energy commodities and their spatial footprints. Integrating concepts of energy planning with geographic information science bears the advantage of spatially contextualizing renewable energy sources and demands, thus serving as a valid intuitive concept for future spatial planning. Although GISs themselves may not be able to distinguish between good and bad designs of "energy landscapes,” they do allow us to figure out optimal solutions in decision making processes and in spatial planning, according to pre-defined criteria. Through GIS-functionality, planners are able to evaluate a range of reasonably good solutions by adding or removing constraints in an iterative process. We may therefore conclude that the methods and tools are available – but not necessarily integrated in sound methodologies – to give planners and decision makers the ability to evaluate a range of solutions within a general decision making or negotiation context.
[1] Biberacher M. Modeling and optimisation of future energy systems. Using spatial and temporal methods. Saarbrücken:VDM Verlag Dr. Müller; 2007.
[2] Prinz T, Biberacher M, Gadocha S, Mittlböck M, Schardinger I et al. Energie und Raumentwicklung. Räumliche Potenziale erneuerbarer Energieträger, Austrian Conference on Spatial Planning, editor. Vienna: Austrian Conference on Spatial Planning (ÖROK); 2009, Institution series 178, p. 1-131.
Editor’s Note: This article is based on this full research paper:
BLASCHKE, T., BIBERACHER, M., GADOCHA, S., SCHARDINGER, I., 2013. ‘Energy landscapes’: meeting energy demands and human aspirations. Biomass & Bioenergy 55, 3-16.

Published Thursday, October 17th, 2013

Written by Thomas Blaschke, Markus Biberacher, Sabine Gadocha, Ingrid Schardinger, Helena Merschdorf

If you liked this article subscribe to our bimonthly newsletter...stay informed on the latest geospatial technology

Sign up

© 2017 Directions Media. All Rights Reserved.