Sustainability in the recent past has become an important aspect in almost every sphere of life. In energy, sustainability is embroiled with the concepts of renewable and clean and safe energy in relation to the environment. As per the 2012 statistics, the consumption of energy and in particular sustainable energy in the US is growing rapidly as a result of government mandates and technology and costs advances (DOE, 2013). For the one decade between 2002 and 2012, there was a 97% global growth of renewable electricity installed and thus, this type of energy by 2012 accounted for 23% of the global electricity production, which includes hydro, wind, solar, biomass, and geothermal. However, the sustainable use of these renewable energy sources in particular wind energy, hydro with reference to unstable water levels, and even biomass is a major challenge hence the need for a suited tool for estimation of use and production to ensure balance. To thing end, Geographic Information System (GIS) bears the potential of being used for the realization of sustainable energy. This paper therefore presents a critical assessment of the role of GIS in promoting a more sustainable future in energy such as hydropower and wind farm. This will be done through review of available and relevant literature on the subject then critical assessment.
What is GIS?
In the modern economy, there is need for maximizing efficiency while at the same time maintaining health and jobs. This requires striking a balance between sustainability and maximization of and efficient use of the available resources. GIS therefore has become the tool for use in ensuring sustainability through planning (Longley et al. 2011). Those who are involved with ensuring sustainability acknowledge that there are many disparate elements that must be brought together so as to keep the mechanics of the environment functioning in the way it is so desired, including the ecology. GIS has become a highly resourceful tool towards ensuring sustainability through planning because it has high integrative power and the ability to bring together various pieces of data sets into a single, simple, and graphical and database format (Resch et al. 2014).
GIS has the ability to make complex data appear straightforward through its egalitarian presentation capabilities. In addition, this tool is fast in compiling data and very easy to use, and manipulates and presents the data into a broad range of stakeholders (Gorsevski et al. 2013). For example, in an energy sustainability project there are various stakeholders among them, conservationists, business people, solid waste consultants, and engineers. The data and information required by the conservationist is very different from that required by the engineer, that required by the engineer is different from the solid waste consultant, and so is the information required by the business people, and yet, all this information comes from the same data sets.
GIS has been adopted and is used in almost every sphere of life. This is because if five of its core benefits (Longley et al. 2011; Resch et al. 2014). First, GIS is cost saving and delivers greater efficiency. This tool is widely used for optimization of maintenance schedules and for daily fleet mobility. According to the DOE (2013), the typical implementation of GIS can lead to 10-30% saving on operational costs for example, through fuel costs and staff time. Second, GIS leads to better decision making. GIS is grown to be the go-to tool for making of better decisions about positioning. As a result, it has proven usable in real estate and natural resource extraction organizations among other. With regard to decision-making, GIS-based disaster decision support systems are very resourceful. Third, GIS serves to improve communication. GIS-based maps and visualizations have greatly helped in situation analysis and aiding storytelling. Fourth, GIS helps in better record keeping. GIS provides organizations with a strong framework for management of authoritative records about change and status of geography and provides full transaction support and reporting capabilities. Lastly, GIS helps in geographical management. This tool has become essential in understanding what is happening or will happen in geographical space.
Until three decades ago, energy sustainability was thought simply in terms of availability with relation to usage rate. Currently, and given the concept of ethical framework for sustainable development and concerns about greenhouse Gas emissions and global warming, others aspects have become critical in determining sustainability (Boyle 2012). These include effects on the environment and the question of waste management, even if the waste isn’t considered to have an effect on the environment. Safety is another aspect of sustainability and the wide and indefinite concern about maximizing the options available for the sake of future generations. In the assessment of sustainability, geopolitical questions of energy security emerge as important for countries together with how affordable the electricity produced is.
Demand for energy is an important aspect in energy sustainability. To this end, a number of factors are agreed; first, the global population is growing and this growth will continue at least for several decades. Secondly, the demand for energy will likely increase at a faster rate, and even the proportion of electricity supplied will grow still faster (Perry, Pick and Rosales 2014). To this point, there is a divergence of opinions on whether the demand for electricity will continue to be served predominantly by extensive grid systems or there will be a strong trend towards distributed generation that is close to the points of use. Nevertheless, it is obvious that energy demand is for continues and reliable power, especially in urban areas.
The other pivotal aspect in the energy sustainability question is sources of energy. Currently, global electricity statistics indicate that, 68% of electricity is from fossil fuels i.e. 41% from coal, 21% from gas, and 5.5% from oil, 19% from hydro and other sources, and 13.4% of electricity is generated from nuclear fission (DOE, 2013). Harnessing renewable energy for example solar and wind is considered to be appropriate for consideration in sustainable development. These two sources of energy are considered sustainable because, apart from construction of the plant, there is no continued depletion of mineral resources as well as there isn’t direct water and air pollution (Perry et al. 2014). Development in this front is aided by the fact that, unlike a few decades back, now the technology for development of solar and wind energy is available.
Of the available renewable energy sources, wind is the fastest growing in many countries and the same provides a wide scope for further expansion. This is however limited by the shortcoming associated with not only wind energy, but the other renewable sources of energy namely solar and to some extend hydro. These sources of electricity are unstable and the capacity for wind seldom exceeds 30% used over the course of a week or a year (He and Kammen 2014). These shortfalls attest to the unreliability of wind energy and to the fact that, the same might not solely meet the required demand. This instability means, when wind doesn’t blow, other substitutes must be used mainly hydro or gas and when it does blow, it means displacement of other sources thus reducing the economic viability of the substitutes thus increasing their prices.
Role of GIS in promoting energy sustainable future
Despite the various shortcoming posed by renewable energy, there is no doubt that, the future of energy is with renewable energy (Grassi, Chokani and Abhari 2012). This is based on the sustainability benefits it creates and also by the examination of the current trend where this type of energy is growing to be a crucial component of the global energy supply. Given the fact that renewable energy largely relates to the earth, GIS and spatial analyses provide an opportunity as being used as an instrument for gathering greater insights into the various stages of development of renewable energy, from the policy formulation and planning state to exploration, licensing, installation, operationalization, transmission of power, utilization by consumers, and evaluation of the project (Gorsevski et al. 2013). GIS provides the potential to being used to plan the various steps and phases, manage their implementation, and evaluate them for compliance or improvement.
In wind farm project, GIS has a role in multiple dimensions. For instance, GIS provides the capability of visualizing summary maps of hourly wind speed. An example is from a sample of 200 locations in china, where GIS allowed for visualization of wind speed per hour maps with the aim of estimating the wind energy production capability of the country’s 31 provinces (Mirhosseini, Sharifi & Sedaghat 2011). As a result of this GIS powered capability, a policy recommendation was made to have china improve and coordinate her power grid system so as to comfortably handle a huge resource of up to 3,500 terawatt hours. In the state of Iowa, GIS mapping was used to assess the wind energy potential of the state (Grassi et al. 2012). The estimates produces included a model of anthropological constraints, environmental features, regulation, and economic attributes. This geospatial model provided the state authorities with projects of the state’s annual energy potential and installation capability. In brief and as attested from these two cases, GIS as a tool has the potential to provide a better refined and accurate analysis with estimates of renewable energy production in regions or states than a non-spatial model.
GIS has the potential to play the role of being used for supporting decisions related to wind energy and for water rights. Towards this role, GIS contributes by enhancing the accuracy of decisions information and adding spatial analysis capabilities to analytic tools (Perry et al. 2014). An example of a Spatial Decision Support System (SDSS) is that used is the assessment of the potential of sitting wind farms in Northwest Ohio (Gorsevski et al. 2013). This decisions support system is based on multi-criteria of location, economic, and environmental information and this is processed through a linear combination procedure that allows participating users to weight different factors. However, studies (Boyle 2012; Kwan 2012) have cautioned towards against premature definition of the space of GIS decisions-making and have provided recommendations on how to broaden the scope before application of SDSS. Such recommendations include knowledge buildup through collaborative planning with the aim of reconciling any politically competing interests after SDSS is applied.
The other aspects of GIS that can be used in renewable energy projects is the concept of Adoption and Diffusion of Innovations (ADI Theory) as argued by Boyle (2012) and Appelrath, Kagermann & Mayer (2012). This theory is often used in IT industry and it is meant to justify innovation in information technologies. In renewable energy, ADI Theory is applied to innovative components that may include space heating, huge wind farms, and for determination of social acceptance, which is the focus in this argument. Social projects especially in the oil and gas industry, and with regard to this paper, renewable projects like wind and solar farms require social acceptance for this implementation and continued sustainability (Appelrath et al. 2012). Social acceptance is described as positive regard by the locals and even though it is not measurable, whenever it is missing, the manifestation will include riots, boycotts, or vandalism of equipments. In ability to gain social acceptance means the renewable energy project won’t pickup from planning and exploration. Conventional methods of gauging social acceptance include polls or examination of key stakeholders (for example opinion makers) and policymakers (Kwan 2012). Manifestation of social acceptance of the project is through specific acceptance of among other, project sitting decisions. With GIS, social acceptance can be gauged through the ADI Theory which then allows for making of the right decisions, on whether to proceed to implementation or work of gaining social acceptance. This is important as incase of implementation without social acceptance, project equipment and materials might be damaged through for example violent riots.
The role of GIS in promoting more sustainable future of energy and in particular wind, hydro, biomass, and solar energy is diverse. GIS and spatial analyses provide an opportunity as being used as an instrument for gathering greater insights into the various stages of development of renewable energy. In wind farm project, GIS has a role in multiple dimensions. For instance, GIS provides the capability of visualizing summary maps of hourly wind speed. GIS can be used for supporting decisions related to wind energy and for water rights. Towards this role, GIS contributes by enhancing the accuracy of decisions information and adding spatial analysis capabilities to analytic tools. The other aspect of GIS that can be used in renewable energy projects is the concept of Adoption and Diffusion of Innovations (ADI Theory). With GIS, social acceptance can be gauged through the ADI Theory which then allows for making of the right decisions, on whether to proceed to implementation or work of gaining social acceptance.
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