Seeing Energy from Space: 5 Tools Using Remote Sensing to Improve Life on Earth

By Aaron Kressig, Dimitrios Mentis

Access to reliable electricity is essential for improving human livelihoods and is a prerequisite for economic development. Yet hundreds of millions of people lack access to a stable supply. While access to electricity is essential, the sector is also the leading driver of greenhouse gas emissions globally.

Tracking the progress and changes to the electricity sector has massive implications for how countries around the world develop, and how we can go about tackling climate change. Several organizations, including the World Resources Institute, have been gathering data on the ever-changing electricity sector using geospatial data and satellite imagery.

Seeing Energy from Space

The availability of high quality data tailored to inform sustainable decision making has increased rapidly in recent years due to technological breakthroughs. Perhaps no other development has had greater impact on the availability of this data in recent years than the proliferation of high-quality satellite imagery.

Satellite imagery is being used in innovative ways, to look at nighttime lights to see where people have electricity access and to identify key features of power plants and transmission lines. Being able to see energy infrastructure from space allows researchers to not only identify the location of key infrastructure, but to determine key characteristics, such as a power plants’ fuel type, cooling technology and emission plumes.

In the past, when electricity data was not reported, there were no alternative sources. Today we can use satellites to fill some of these data gaps even when there is no reported information. Geospatial energy data has significantly expanded not only the amount of electricity sector-related data that is available, but has enabled more sophisticated analysis, allowing us to better understand the complexities of the electricity sector.

In order to demonstrate the real-world benefits that are achieved by mapping electricity sector infrastructure, we will provide an overview of five exciting initiatives changing the way decision makers evaluate electricity sector development and provide examples of how they have done so on the ground.

Open Source Spatial Electrification Tool (OnSSET)

OnSSET is an open source, spatial electrification tool that provides technology and investment outlooks on expanding access through on grid, off grid and mini grid systems. Considering several data layers such as renewable energy potential, location of infrastructure (grid network, roads, power plants), OnSSET maps out the mix of technologies that are most cost efficient across the studied region to reach certain electricity access goals. The key added value is that OnSSET has a modular system design that allows flexible analysis, easy updates and algorithm variations, aiming to capture any specificity associated with each project.

recent study published in Environmental Research Letters predicts a mix of electrification options will be needed to reach universal access in sub-Saharan Africa. The study found that for a modern electricity consumption level scenario, expanding the existing grid will be the cheapest way to achieve universal energy access along the main corridors between major cities. However, away from the main cities where building out the existing grid would be too expensive, distributed options like stand alone and mini grid systems, offer a cheaper option for electrifying rural communities.

 In Malawi, KTH Royal Institute of Technology and local decision makers use OnSSET to explore least-cost options to universal electrification. By teaching local stakeholders how the program works and how to run it, they are able to build capacity in using geospatial analysis to inform energy planning.

 Facebook, Mapping Electricity Distribution Lines (Medium Voltage)

Facebook has released a model to help map global medium voltage (MV) grid infrastructure, or the distribution lines, which carry electricity through cities and rural areas to get to end users: houses, companies, schools, hospitals, etc. They have shared a full tutorial on reproducing the model, segments of code and model data for six African countries: Malawi, Nigeria, Uganda, DRC, Côte D’Ivoire and Zambia.  The grid maps are produced using a new methodology that employs various publicly-available datasets (night time satellite imagery, roads, political boundaries, etc.) to predict the location of existing MV grid infrastructure. The data will greatly aid with planning for grid expansion to increase energy access and integrate distributed renewable energy resources. Location of grid infrastructure is a key component in infrastructure planning, but this data is often of poor quality, outdated or simply not available in many countries. With the additional release of model documentation and code, data scientists and planners can replicate the model globally, so MV mapping can be expanded to other countries where this data is not already available.

Explore data on electricity access on Resource Watch below.

Power Explorer

Power Explorer is a project that provides openly available data on key attributes of power plants, including precise location, fuel type, technology, capacity, owner and electricity generation in the global power plant database. Future iterations will also include information on plant-level carbon dioxide emissions, air pollutants and water use. The dataset has over 30,000 power plants which cover an estimated 85 percent of global installed electricity capacity over 164 countries. By providing the first open access, mapped dataset of the world’s power plants, decision makers are now able to overlay power plants with other geospatial datasets, allowing us to better understand power plants’ air pollution and their risk from water scarcity.

Development banks are using Power Explorer data to inform sustainable investment practices in North Africa and the Middle East, by assessing water risks facing existing and planned thermal power plants in the region and quantifying the benefit of turning to less-water intensive generation sources such as wind and solar. By including water risk in their investment decisions, they are not only planning for future droughts, they are also picking energy sources with lower carbon emissions and air pollution.

Power Explorer data is hosted on Resource Watch.

NREL and USAID’s Renewable Energy Data Explorer

Renewable Energy (RE) Data Explorer is a user-friendly geospatial analysis tool for analyzing renewable energy potential and informing decisions. Developed by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), RE Data Explorer performs visualization and analysis of renewable energy potential for user-defined scenarios that can be customized for specific locations. RE Data Explorer can support prospecting, integrated planning, policymaking and other decision-making activities to accelerate renewable energy deployment.

Using the RE Data Explorer tool, NREL and USAID are working with the Mexican agencies to support various energy policy decisions. For example, their Secretariat of Energy is using the RE Data Explorer to identify regions in Mexico where they can most affordably build new renewable energy projects.

Energy Access Explorer

Leveraging the power of global satellite imagery combined with data from local databases, World Resources Institute (WRI) collaborates with international partners and local stakeholders to develop Energy Access Explorer. Energy Access Explorer is a forthcoming online, open-source, interactive platform that brings together and analyses several spatial data sets on both energy supply and demand. The tool uses location-specific resource availability and infrastructure data to represent energy supply. Energy Access Explorer also incorporates demographic and socio-economic data to visualize demand. Together, these supply and demand indicators enable more comprehensive planning not only for energy planning institutions but also for mini-grid developers and development finance institutions and donors.

Information into Action

Each of these initiatives has a unique offer and different audiences, yet they are similar in that each relies on geospatial data to identify key characteristics of electricity infrastructure, which would otherwise not be known. Geospatial data and analyses are rapidly changing the way we look at the electricity sector, and key actors in the government and private sector are increasingly taking notice.

While all of these efforts are quite recent, we are already beginning to see them driving positive sustainable development.

As decision makers begin to use geospatial data and analysis to look at the electricity sector in relation to its environmental impacts and social benefits, it will become easier to make intelligent, sustainable decisions on future power sector growth. Improving the availability and transparency of these types of data is essential to tackling the dual challenge of human development and climate change.

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