Vol. 2 | Issue 19 | August 21, 2014

Solar Industry E-Feature

Open-Source PVMapper Tool A Cure For The Not-In-My-Backyard Blues

Wouldn't it be nice to have a map of all the backyards people don't want your proposed solar project in?

Working under a $2.8 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy's SunShot Initiative, a group of researchers from universities in Idaho and Utah in partnership with Idaho National Laboratory have developed PVMapper, a geographic information system (GIS) that helps large-scale photovoltaic project developers take social preferences and constraints into account.

"I've been working on infrastructure siting for a while now," says David Solan, director of the Energy Policy Institute at Boise State University and a leader on the PVMapper project. "There used to be a school of thought that just because a project was green, people wouldn't care about its proximity to certain things. Surprise. PV is still infrastructure."
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Solan recalls his work as an energy policy analyst and investigator working for an energy oversight committee in the U.S. House of Representatives. He says developers would come in all the time complaining that local people and even other federal agencies were objecting to their officially sanctioned development efforts.

Several years ago, Solan and his team, in partnership with Idaho National Lab, created a demonstration GIS tool for siting transmission lines that integrated social information. In addition to the standard topographical, geological and regulatory layers, the tool also incorporated social preferences and risk factors about proximity to certain areas or intersection with various features of the land that people value.

Solan wanted to build on this work to develop a practical GIS tool for solar project developers that had the added virtue of being freely available through the use of open-source software. SunShot took this idea to heart.

In addition to Boise State and Idaho National Lab, the PVMapper team includes developers from Idaho State University, the University of Idaho and Brigham Young University.

PVMapper currently exists as an online software tool based on large-scale maps of the U.S. for identifying potential PV-appropriate sites based on factors such as solar insolation, slope, land usage types and nearby geographical features. A site-comparison function enables side-by-side analysis of the costs and benefits of selected locations. Detailed reports can be generated incorporating various GIS layers.

"A lot of great tools either require licenses or are so complicated that only the software developers know how to use them," Solan says. "I really like the idea of advancing renewable energy and siting things in the most appropriate place. If this helps roll out infrastructure for the 21st century with the least amount of social opposition, fantastic."

A key goal of PVMapper was to make the tool usable across the entire U.S. As part of the program, the development team put batteries of dozens of questions to respondents through random phone samples over three years to collect data on where people prefer things, where they do not and how far away they would prefer things to be. This information was incorporated into the software's mapping functions.

"We want to make it generic enough that if somebody wants to look at a site in California and compare it to a site in Texas, they can do that," Solan says.

From working with potential users and other industry partners, Solan says the team learned that different developers have many business plans and timelines, along with many different factors that kill their projects. In each of the tools incorporated into PVMapper, the user is able to exclude sites inhabited by their particular project-killing bete noirs.

"You think you know how the business works, but people have figured out different ways to make money for their niche," Solan says.

As it stands, the PVMapper team will continue to host the program on its servers for the next five years. However, by design, PVMapper is a platform that interested users will be able to build on to refine it for their own purposes. This is another advantage of the open-source approach. As more data becomes available, people can develop their own extensions.

"The interesting thing about the open-source stuff is that you put it out there and people start using it in ways that you never anticipated," Solan says. "That's really good. That's also what we want."

For more information on PVMapper and access to the program, click here.

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