By Leslie Ponder, Director, Distributed Generation Technology; and Lisa Fewins, Director, Environmental Services, Black & Veatch
Environmental assessment, permitting and planning processes are using big data to accelerate infrastructure development and significantly reduce project development costs. As we emerge from the pandemic and seek to build for a more sustainable future, these new tools simultaneously assess numerous environmental criteria, including local, state, and federal regulations, across multiple locations, taking weeks off the typical site selection decision-making process and saving developers millions.
This new breed of data-driven solutions is maturing at just the right time to match the rapid increase in deployment of renewable energy and other distributed infrastructure. As an example, capacity additions in utility-scale solar in the United States are expected to reach 10 gigawatts (GW) this year, showing little change from COVID-19 financial impacts, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. Prospects for investment in multiple-site commercial and industrial distributed energy resources (DERs) are also positive and set to recover. The recent Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s (FERC) Order 2222 opens up regional wholesale markets to DERs such as small-scale solar units and battery storage systems; it is projected that 36 GW of small-scale solar photovoltaic (PV) alone will be developed by 2025.
Renewable infrastructure tends to have different location requirements than the more centralized large-scale power generation facility they are often replacing. They typically need more land to deliver an equivalent amount of power and, beyond the switchyard, require new transmission lines to connect these distributed assets to the power grid.
As the benefits of bifacial solar PV play out and narrow the price difference between solar and wind, regions like the Midwestern United States could see a rise in the build out of multiple solar developments alongside needed new transmission lines. Such developments will benefit from fast and efficient environmental site assessments across multiple locations. This holds true for all distributed infrastructure being planned and developed: behind-the-meter energy solutions; edge data centers; 5G telecommunications infrastructure; vehicle charging infrastructure; and linear route infrastructure like power transmission lines, gas pipelines and water networks.
What they have in common is the need for project developers to solve a complex program optimization problem. Project developers must assess multiple locations at the same time to identify and prioritize sites that meet their technical and environmental priorities, often making 20-year-plus siting decisions for an array of assets that can equate to hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars of capital.
Poor site selection today will also burden operating cost and reduce profitability. Many solar developments are located in hurricane-prone areas, particularly in the Southeastern United States, where impacts from increasing severe flooding and storm events are already seeing a reported rise in insurance premiums. Developers need to assess sites that balance reducing risk from ever-evolving climate and weather impacts with other critical factors such as proximity to end-users and existing grid infrastructure.
Benefits of Data-Driven Environmental Site Assessments
Enter data-driven solutions. Such platforms take much of the guesswork and tedious effort out of identifying and comparing multiple sites at once by evaluating data in a meaningful way to drive early decision making. Identification of environmental risk and impacts early during the land acquisition stage, for example, can avoid considerable cost and downstream schedule delays and enable developers to implement mitigation plans or explore alternatives.
The advance of distributed infrastructure also means that more infrastructure is being built closer to communities and in new locations. This often means additional criteria need consideration when selecting a site such as the impact from noise or other social or sustainability factors.
Using integrated site analytics platforms help identify preferred routes and sites faster and navigate regulatory compliance processes more easily. Indeed, according to Black & Veatch’s 2020 Strategic Directions: Electric Report, siting permitting processes remain the biggest challenge for transmission investment today – an example of a mature distributed infrastructure class – with 39 percent of industry respondents identifying this issue over other challenges including evolving return on equity and incentive policies for rates (25 percent), cost allocation and participant funding (15 percent), risks from climate change (10 percent), and access to investment capital (9 percent). Similarly, a poll of more than 250 Black & Veatch’s LinkedIn followers in October also identified regulatory hurdles (31 percent) as the biggest challenge facing solar development.
Innovation is needed to simplify and improve the regulatory and site permitting experience of developers.
Without advanced and integrated platforms, teams of developers and environmental consultants could take as much as two to four weeks to gather all the various GIS (geographical information system) data related to a site, import the data, evaluate opportunities and constraints, and manually generate site reports and route recommendations. Teams then take that initial information and develop potentially multiple iterations before determining the optimal site or linear route that met environmental compliance as well as constructability and other project goals.
New platforms simplify and speed-up the data gathering process and initial analysis. Teams identify optimal sites in days, not weeks, and the overall competency, accuracy and efficiency of site assessment processes are improved. The added advantage of an enhanced digital approach is that it enables developers to transparently demonstrate due diligence work undertaken and highlight factors that determined the decision.
Streamlined Integration of Field and Office Data at Scale
Such platforms can also streamline additional data gathered in the field. Black & Veatch in the United Kingdom, for example, has mobilized over 5,000 ecological studies (through the management of more than 150 surveyors) along the proposed High Speed Rail 2 route as part of its role in the development of what is the country’s most significant rail transport project in 150 years.
The ecologists use bespoke Black & Veatch survey scheduling and tracking platforms, and tablet-based data capture and specialist surveys apps to record and assure habitats and protected species data and wider information and evidence is recorded, stored and interpreted accurately and efficiently. This creates online spatial information that can be analyzed or displayed clearly both in the field or the office in real-time on bespoke project dashboards that are available around the clock.
Such scaling of data collation in a unified survey management platform is critical for licensing to enable programme-critical construction site preparation and environmental mitigation works on this multi-billion pound project. Its application at the site and route selection phases of such projects provide clear and obvious quality and cost-saving benefits too.
Data-driven solutions will ultimately create better environmental outcomes, creating value from site selection through to delivery. Actionable insight from the data systems will speed-up results and reduce costs, informing site selection more in tune with evolving climate and weather considerations alongside other landowner, historical and any other concerns that can be measured and incorporated into the system.