Summer  >>  2012  

Innovation in the Energy Industry

Earth Imagery for Solar, Oil and Gas

Fig. 1

Aerial imagery shows a neighborhood in northwest Washington D.C. thatdemonstrates the high variability of solar potential for different houses in the sameneighborhood. The houses that are oriented east to west are showing mostly red and purplesolar values, indicating less sunlight. The houses that are oriented from north to southhave much more yellow and orange on the south-facing roof facet, indicating more directsunlight. Credit: Geostellar.

Fig. 2

Aerial imagery shows individual structures up close. The green lines delineatewhere solar panels could be optimally placed. Credit: Geostellar.

Fig. 3

Aerial imagery shows individual structures up close. The green lines delineatewhere solar panels could be optimally placed. Credit: Geostellar.

SVP Marketing
Herndon, Va.

Due to unprecedented energy needs around the world, governments, corporations, NGOs and consumers are grappling with a number of difficult issues as they seek affordable and efficient energy solutions. In order to address these issues effectively, the energy industry is increasingly looking to companies that can supply Earth imagery, geospatial expertise and enabling technologies in order to deliver clear, deep and timely intelligence.

Companies using geospatial technology are playing an increasingly important role in providing insight that enables better decision making in three major areas: growing the renewable energy market, supporting oil and gas exploration, and planning out new energy infrastructures. Innovations like these help make renewable energy sources accessible; they also address the global desire to maximize the impact of finite energy supplies.

Renewable energy sources have become increasingly important to creating sustainable energy supplies, providing cleaner energy and saving money. In particular, solar power has become one of the leading sectors in the energy industry. Worldwide, the solar industry has been growing by 50 percent annually. In the United States, renewable solar power is quickly becoming a mainstream, affordable energy option – when taking into account current tax incentives, solar energy now costs less than many Americans pay for electricity. Solar energy is also a boon to the United States’ overall economy. Per dollar invested, solar is the highest job-producing energy industry in the country. According to National Solar Jobs Census, the solar industry had created more than 100,000 jobs by 2011, with another 25,000 anticipated in 2012.

But despite improvements in photovoltaic panel technology, which has decreased the cost of solar panels systems, identifying productive locations to install solar panels has remained a costly process due to the intensive manual labor required to determine the value of a roof, including manual surveying and hand measurement. And this is precisely why some are slow to embrace solar energy: it can be prohibitively expensive to discover whether or not it will ever be worth the investment of time and money.

Solar Power Predictive Analytics

One promising venture to help make renewable energy cost-effective for both businesses and consumers is being led by Geostellar and supported by Earth imagery provider GeoEye.

Geostellar created a breakthrough analytics platform that automatically determines how quickly a given property owner can recoup an investment in solar energy. Its predictive algorithms allow site owners in target solar markets to easily determine key factors including rate of return, potential electricity savings and environmental benefits.

Using 3D simulation, Geostellar models solar production and financial performance for the potential project site. The result is an accurate assessment of “solar score” for each property, including unbiased recommendations on equipment, financing and installation options. This solar value is analogous to the FICO scores used by the financial services industry.

Geostellar’s web-based software uses data streams from sources such as roof slope, shadows, weather patterns, local utility rates and solar energy subsidies to automate the assessment process. In the past, this was done piecemeal, using LiDAR data collected by airplanes, which was an expensive and time-consuming collection process with disparate municipalities.

This is where GeoEye helps take the process to a much higher level. Digital surface models (DSMs) derived from Earth imagery enable Geostellar’s model to work on a national scale. To extend coverage nationally, Geostellar will now source remote sensing data from GeoEye and apply image processing capabilities developed by GeoEye Analytics to provide the data required to develop solar maps for every key metropolitan market in the United States.

With the combination of Geostellar’s analytics platform and both data and analytics provided by GeoEye, the potential exists to inform the domestic market for solar power, to decrease the cost and to increase the speed with which a consumer or business can assess the value of switching to solar power on their buildings. There is clearly a great deal of excitement in this work, as Geostellar closed a large Series B round of funding in May to support a national rollout in 2013 and launch a true solar marketplace.

Oil and Gas Applications

Beyond renewable energy sources like solar energy, Earth imagery and geographic information systems (GIS) have been applied to improve site selection for productive fields in oil and gas exploration. For one energy client, GeoEye Analytics demonstrated the predictive analysis capabilities of its advanced geospatial application tools to identify deepwater oil and gas fields in the offshore in the Gulf of Mexico in the U.S.

Analysts used their tools and expertise to combine data layers such as geologic strata, temperature, thickness and gravity/magnetic levels with productive wells in the Gulf of Mexico to create a productive well assessment. In addition to site selection, analysts were able to rank exploration efforts in the order of most revenue efficient, providing the client with valuable insight to make difficult business decisions.

Geospatial technology is also used in energy infrastructure planning. One successful example is found in determining where the sea portion of a pipeline should be constructed for one of the most complicated installations of a natural gas pipeline. High resolution imagery taken by GeoEye’s IKONOS satellite was used by GeoEye’s customer ScanEx to evaluate the 1,830-kilometer Sakhalin-Khabarovsk-Vladivostok gas pipeline built as part of the Eastern Gas Program, coordinated by OAO Gazprom in Russia.

The pipeline was slated for construction through the Nevelsky Strait, the narrowest part of the Strait of Tartary, which separates the Russian island of Sakhalin from the mainland. During the winter, the strait can become hazardous for infrastructure and facilities, because it is covered with ice measuring an average thickness of one meter. To aid in risk assessment of hazardous ice formations for the pipeline, high-resolution IKONOS satellite imagery of the Nevelsky Strait was used to prepare a Digital Elevation Model (DEM) of the shore ice in the strait using advanced software and the highly accurate Earth imagery data as a basemap. Thanks to satellite imagery, specialists were able to assess the features of the shore ice morphology in the Nevelsky Strait and determine the exact locations and sizes of ice formations. This data was incorporated into the survey and planning work for the pipeline to minimize construction in high-risk areas.

These examples clearly demonstrate that there are many valuable uses for solutions that combine Earth imagery, geospatial expertise and enabling technology to deliver clear, deep and timely insight in the energy industry. In fields such as solar power, the impact could be almost transformative, helping create a clear marketplace where, before, labor intensive manual processes reigned. In oil and gas, such solutions will help speed up the process of identifying new sources and reducing risks associated with transportation.

As the energy industry evolves, governments, corporations, NGOs and consumers will all require information to make faster and better decisions to consider potential benefits and risks of any investments. These examples clearly illustrate the benefits geospatial technologies will have in transforming the energy industry.

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