Clean Energy is Looking to Geospatial Technology to Mitigate Environmental Risks

September 28, 2022
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The solar industry continues to expand, with an average annual growth rate of more than 33% over the last decade, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. In fact, 46% of new electric capacity added to the grid in 2021 came from solar, the largest capacity share in history. Amid this surge of interest comes a heightened need to identify where panels, solar farms and infrastructure should be located. The geospatial imaging industry is helping to support this rapid growth by leveraging many of the same technologies it first used to support legacy energy companies' oil and gas pipelines.

Technology solutions enable these solar companies to conduct surveys faster and more cost-effectively while maintaining high accuracy. Armed with this information, companies can avert costly regulatory snags and overwhelming data sets while also avoiding the creation of environmental issues that demand remediation.

Similarities in Technology Usage

Traditionally, surveying and engineering companies relied on boots on the ground to obtain their data, but the process was costly and time-consuming. As technology has evolved and more advanced data collection options have become available, solar developers are embracing remotely-sensed data and analysis to expedite projects and reduce overhead costs.

Both the oil and gas industry and the solar industry are challenged by an excess of such data. As organizations grapple with this influx, they are becoming increasingly open to technologies that can manage, process and distill the information for better insight across their operations.

Individuals in all energy sectors seek ways to improve efficiencies, reduce human error, keep costs down and reduce their environmental footprint. Across the entire energy industry, operators are gradually embracing cloud-based software incorporating machine learning to better understand terrain threats, optimal locations for new infrastructure and more.

Infrastructure Challenges That Clean Energy Faces

Pipelines and solar farms share common challenges during site selection and construction, such as remote and hard-to-reach locations and complex water runoff scenarios.

Factors that these industries must consider include:

  • Permitting, including State, Federal, Army Corps of Engineers and more.
  • Constructability issues such as elevation, depth to bedrock, water ponding and vegetation.
  • Environmental constraints, such as protected wetlands, floodplains and critical species habitats.
  • Terrain threats, including elevation profiles and soil class.
  • Extreme weather, including higher incidents of hail, rain, landslide or seismic activity.

Assets put into place by both sectors need a high degree of environmental analysis for locations surveyed, making remotely-sensed data and imaging invaluable for identifying risks due to ecosystems, climate risks or product costs that may vary by terrain characteristics.

 Remotely-sensed Data is Helping to Mitigate These Challenges

Just like it can for the oil and gas industry, geospatial technology can help the solar industry identify and avoid asset risks. For example, LiDAR and geospatial analysis can help identify wetlands, soil issues (such as Karst subsidence risk) and underground hydrological issues to avoid risk areas before solar operators commit to a project. Digital terrain models and contours can evaluate elevation and hill slide slope to better estimate construction costs and material needs.

Because traditional surveys are labor- and time-intensive, the number of survey points a project budget and scope can reasonably handle is limited. Conventional survey methods involve a lot of interpolation between survey points, leaving the subtle yet critical topographic features between survey points unaccounted for. A LiDAR survey, on the other hand, captures topographic details at a much higher point density (think 25 points per square meter), generating a more accurate landscape model at a fraction of the time and cost.

Advances in geospatial imaging enable analytics to be used more widely across varying industries. This industry-spanning functionality allows the same imaging technology used to detect terrain threats to pipelines to evaluate potential locations for solar installations or monitor for issues like water runoff at existing installations. As many of these locations are hard to reach and face their unique challenges, this technology's advantages become invaluable for cost and safety measures.

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