GWPrime

Location Intelligence Driving Renewables

From finding the most viable areas to ensuring proper spacing of equipment, LI plays a crucial role in both onshore and offshore projects.

By Nicholas Duggan

As we in the UK move to becoming “zero carbon” by 2050, Location Intelligence (LI) will be the driving force that gets us over the line. Since the start of the millennium, we have seen wind farms and solar farms becoming commonplace, with maybe even an offshore wave device or two. It is safe to say that every reader will remember seeing their first wind turbine. Did you ever stop to think about how it got there or why? The truth of the matter is that renewable energy projects are some of the best examples of Location Intelligence currently available.

For solar sites, a consideration of a minimum solar threshold is noted. This scoping analysis provides a traffic light assessment, zones which have excellent potential, areas which are viable and then those which completely fail the minimum criteria

Onshore projects

Almost all onshore renewable energy projects start the same way, with a scoping exercise to find the most viable areas for the project. This is a really rough analysis which considers some of the biggest impacts that may stop a project at an early stage. For an onshore wind farm or solar farm, this will predominantly consist of an analysis to find an open space which has a sub-station within a specified distance, has room for x amount of turbines or panels, is located near an airport (or airfield), military base, or an existing renewable project, is at a specified distance from residential property, if it sits on too much of an incline and whether there are any high level environmental reasons for excluding the site. For solar sites, a consideration of a minimum solar threshold and for wind farms, a minimum annual wind speed at the site is noted. This scoping analysis provides a traffic light assessment, zones which have excellent potential, areas which are viable and then those which completely fail the minimum criteria.

One of the hardest challenges, whether it is a solar farm, onshore or offshore wind farm, is collating the data. It requires a Spatial Data Infrastructure (SDI) from the start of the project to ensure data is provided consistently and as expected. Some (survey) data maybe 1-2TB and getting changes after it has been received could delay a project by months. Therefore, details in the SDI, such as vertical datum to use, metadata formats, and even expected transformations to be used for data, are vital

Offshore projects

Offshore renewable energy project areas are limited in the UK. Since (circa) 2000, there have been leased areas released by The Crown Estate, as all land offshore up to 12 nautical miles in the country is owned by them. So far, there have been three rounds of wind farm areas, with round 4 announced in 2019 and areas allocated to project owners in 2021, with the intention of providing 33% of the UK’s electricity demand by offshore wind. The Crown Estate defines the areas for lease and development through an initial scoping exercise, therefore, the further analysis that is required is more detailed.

Once the best couple of sites are chosen, a micro scale analysis begins. This is done in two stages, a preliminary analysis and then an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) to provide the necessary validity and also to show that all the concerns of the local planning authority and the public have been considered.

In the earliest stages, a preliminary survey will be undertaken, both topographic and ecological offshore, a multi-beam survey and mammal survey of the site will be taken. Apart from new data, historical data, including previous uses, ownership, surveys, and old maps, are also obtained.

Around 15 or 20 years ago, wrecks on the seabed were identified by divers and the survey was captured at 5m cells or more. For modern offshore survey, there is 10cm and 25cm. Furthermore, wrecks are captured using high resolution images which are then processed into detailed models to understand structural integrity or the spread of debris

Multiple considerations

With wind and solar farms, the equipment needs to be spaced and orientated correctly. With wind farms especially, care has to be taken to consider “over topple”. This is to allow enough space in case a turbine falls — with a 100m wind turbine it can be quite a distance. There is also consideration of the shadows which the turbines create to ensure they don’t fall on neighboring properties. Often, people complain that certain turbines in an array aren’t working, and it is an incredible waste of money… when in fact they are turned off sometimes due to shadow flicker (when the shadow of the blades rotate on a property), or due to the wind being too low or too high. Considerations for solar farms are quite the opposite, and mostly concerns glint and glare from the panels may cause distraction for pilots or nearby buildings. All this is analyzed using GIS to ensure that the location derived is right, so that the project team can decide whether the investment is viable before taking it to the planning stage.

It is not uncommon for an energy company to invest or take on the project at this stage. With the right project, an energy company can offset a lot of their carbon footprint and make money from grid generation. A decade ago, there was a vast amount of investment in onshore wind and solar projects; the government even gave large subsidies to encourage investment. This fell off and has almost stopped since the UK government put a stop to onshore wind development in 2016.

Using every part of LI toolbox

The next step is to use every part of the Location Intelligence toolbox to mitigate potential issues, constraints and define the optimum position of the equipment. For wind farms and the complexity of putting up the structures, it is also necessary to plan the construction stage as well, defining areas to store equipment and put cranes. For offshore wind farms, the “jack-up” vessel used to install the turbines can damage the seabed, therefore, where it puts its feet down is carefully planned to use footprints multiple times.

An EIA report is created to examine and justify the project. This may alter the layout and equipment type as the project progresses. With the correct software, this can be done in near real-time like a BIM project, though many companies look to reduce costs and will use in-house GIS teams coordinated by the EIA areas of focus. These commonly include:

Process transformation

One of the most amazing things about this is the technology being used for offshore wind farms. Around 15 or 20 years ago, wrecks on the seabed would have been identified by divers and the survey would have been captured at 5m cells or more. For modern offshore survey, it is 10cm and 25cm, furthermore wrecks are captured using high-resolution images (photogrammetry) and then processed into detailed models to understand structural integrity or the spread of debris. Using object detection, mammal and bird surveys are more advanced than the previous method of sitting on the deck of the vessel with a notepad, waiting for a sighting. The entire wind farm can be modeled in 3D and 4D (change over time) to see seabed detail, like where the cable to shore might go; surface and shipping detail; and even aviation, all within one single interface. Much like drones have become a part of onshore survey, underwater autonomous vehicles are now a standard in offshore capture and monitoring, many using solar energy to ensure they can operate over weeks or months. Just as there is a need to ensure that the project doesn’t fall under an aircraft landing route, in offshore projects, there is a need to analyze vessel traffic and the potential changes that may occur as part of the development. A large leap forward for the modern wind farm is that GeoAI can be used to map and predict these potential changes for the hydrography.

Collating data

One of the hardest challenges, whether it is a solar farm, onshore or offshore wind farm, is collating the data. It requires a Spatial Data Infrastructure (SDI) from the start of the project to ensure data is provided consistently and as expected. Some (survey) data may be 1-2TB and getting changes after it has been received could delay a project by months. Therefore, even detail in the SDI, such as vertical datum to use, metadata formats and even expected transformations to be used for data, are vital. Having to manage the relationships and interactions between hundreds of data, which are all varying resolutions, trust and license type, requires planning, and a team made up of data scientists, geospatial experts, and people with industry experience. For offshore projects, collected data relevant to the project must be submitted along with the EIA to The Crown Estate which is required to meet their current defined standards.

Not every wind farm gets approved. Even with the best evidence and a detailed EIA, the approval can still fail. One example of this was the Navitus Bay wind farm, which was planned off the coast of Bournemouth in the UK. It wasn’t the “Anti-Navitus” group who sent false visualizations to the press claiming the turbines to be larger than they were and a horrendous eye sore. It wasn’t the extensive number of B&B owners who were afraid of the lost business. It was quite simple, even though there would be no impact on the seabed or the two-three new wrecks I found, it was because the area is the Jurassic coast of the UK. Quite simply, there may, by some immense chance, be some disturbance which may ruin a potential find. Even though the project ran for nearly five years, at no time did The Crown Estate raise that this could be a problem.

The Navitus Bay wind farm, which was planned off the coast of Bournemouth in the UK, did not get approval

Project monitoring

Once a renewables project has been approved, it needs constructing, and then once operational, it requires annual monitoring and real-time analysis of the SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition), a system which is built into each turbine/panel to monitor performance, output, and wind direction. Annual surveys need to be consistent and created in a way that it may be monitored consistently. In some scenarios, this may be necessary to prove compliance with local government requirements, or if not, to monitor any change over time and ensure it is within expected tolerances. If you have a head for heights, one of the most exciting jobs is doing an annual inspection on a wind turbine. This involves climbing the inside of the turbine to the nacelle to check if the safety equipment is present and up to date. You may even need to open the hatch and check equipment on top; it is an exhilarating experience.

Already 10% of the UK’s energy is supplied by offshore wind and another 9% from onshore wind. By 2030, their combined output is expected to be over 33%. The offshore wind industry currently employs around 11,000 staff to meet the demand of the round 4 areas; The Crown Estate estimates that at least 60,000 staff will be required by 2030, boosting the local economy.

Dan Labbad, Chief Executive of The Crown Estate, says, “Round 4 offers a major boost for the UK’s green economy and subject to environmental assessments, these projects have the potential to create new jobs and deliver green and affordable energy to millions more homes. With a net zero goal, some of the best offshore wind resources in the world, and clear commitment from the government and industry to continue investing in the low carbon economy, the UK stands ready to play its part in addressing the global climate crisis.”

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