Using GIS to advance sustainability
This article explores how organizations have started using GIS as a tool for natural resource assessment to enhance sustainability.
A geographic information system (GIS) is a technological tool which captures, manages and helps to analyze all forms of geographic reference data and facilitate informed decision making. It’s an information system which helps integrate and present geographical data as per specific project requirements.
If we evaluate the full lifecycle perspective of: “Planning –Designing-Building-Operations and Maintenance-Use-Recycle-Re-plan”, GIS is gradually beginning to be a part of most stages of the lifecycle instead of just the planning stage as has historically been the case. Use of the GIS tool is increasing in building (schedule management, supply footprint, logistics, etc.), O&M (energy, space management, waste management etc.), and recycling portions of the life cycle .
Most variables related to distribution or those linked to space and time have geography as their organizing principle. Many sustainability linked variables, if extrapolated, have geography as their primary driver such as:
- sources of renewable energy (solar, wind, biomass, tides, geothermal etc),
- logistics (timing and pattern of resource availability and consumption),
- climate change (rainfall, floods, drought, etc).
GIS can play an important role in tracking parameters in natural resource assessment, sustainable agriculture, sustainable development, energy etc. GIS users across the globe shares ideas on how to meet their resource needs, plan efficient land use, and protect the environment to guarantee the survival of future generations. Today technology is heading far ahead where GIS drives informed environmental policies for better sustainability.
a) Natural Resource Assessment
GIS enables assessment and mapping of renewable energy sources such solar, wind, biomass etc which helps in accurate forecasting of the resource potential, their geographical distribution etc. It also helps map other natural resources and mark regions under risk, identify the cause and effect, establish correlation between events and outcome.This resource assessment is especially helpful in planning renewable energy projects.
The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) is using GIS for its Concentrating Solar Power research program to develop direct normal resource data, quantify potential for development, and understand the relative intensity of the solar resource and the site characteristics which will impact the feasibility of the solar power plants. GIS is also being used to determine the solar potential of all available rooftop areas in some regions. The NREL team can use similar tools for locating favourable locations for wind farms which takes into account wind speed, analysis of the terrain etc.
GIS can be used to map the forest cover in a region and also generate data related to temperature changes and cloud cover changes in affected areas to build correlation and conduct impact analysis. Department of forests under Government of India is using GIS for its Joint Forest Management (JFM) program whose primary aim is to foster partnerships between forest department and fringe forest user groups in order to promote sustainable forestry. GIS can be used to map the vegetation (biomass) type, growth pattern, potential supply etc. to determine feasibility of biomass based energy/oil.
Spatial aspects of GIS technology enable users to overlay multiple layers of data and help predict future of resources including land, flora and fauna and energy sources.
b) Environmental Impact Assessment
Apart from resource assessment, GIS can be implemented for conducting Environmental Impact Assessment of hydro projects/dams. It can be used to find areas which will get affected by a dam, those which might get inundated, to determine the impact on biodiversity (monitor habitat change, track wildlife demographics), to analyze soil characteristics which will help predict soil erosion and calculate the overall impact on the ecosystem.
Organizations such as ESRI are actively using GIS in natural resource assessment in India through their products such as ArcGIS, a system for designing and managing solutions through the application of geographic knowledge.
As per Rajesh Mathur of ESRI India,“GIS simplifies complicated scientific information so that authorities, decision makers and the public are able to understand the root cause of the problem.”
c) Operational Efficiency in power utilities and distribution companies
GIS can be a very useful tool in power distribution, especially in planning the distribution network, reducing T&D losses etc. and most importantly in outage management in which GIS can be used to trace the exact location of the problem in the distribution network.
The geographic information system can also help utilities promote energy efficiency amongst its consumers by especially targeting consumers with high energy savings potential and increasing their awareness as well as engagement in programs related to energy efficiency. GIS can be used to map consumer location and consumption pattern as well as link consumption to billing.
d) Sustainable development and sustainable agriculture
Experts believe that GIS can be used to shape agricultural productivity increasing yield per hectare. Extensive crop planning can be carried out through GIS which can help collate and analyze data on agro-climatic conditions of a region such as soil characteristics, ground water level, rainfall pattern, fertilizer requirements etc.
GIS can also be used for Land use planning (urban planning, industrial township planning etc). GIS inputs (parameters for land characteristics such as Wasteland, proximity to railhead, airport, roadways, level of literacy, power supply etc) can be used to define areas to develop new townships and optimize design of cities.
There is clearly no simple answer or one stop solution to enhance sustainability, however, GIS tools do increase optimism about making our planet more sustainable.
This author Aparna Khandelwal is a sustainability consultant and is currently working with cKinetics based in New Delhi.