Google maps draw a line in sand for clean energy

Environmentalists create cheat sheets about places where alternative-energy developers are least and most likely to be challenged.

Candace Lombardi
In a software-driven world, it's easy to forget about the nuts and bolts. Whether it's cars, robots, personal gadgetry or industrial machines, Candace Lombardi examines the moving parts that keep our world rotating. A journalist who divides her time between the United States and the United Kingdom, Lombardi has written about technology for the sites of The New York Times, CNET, USA Today, MSN, ZDNet, Silicon.com, and GameSpot. She is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not a current employee of CNET.
Candace Lombardi
3 min read

A new set of layers for Google Earth is trying to make it easier for solar and wind farm developers to figure out where they are least and most likely to be challenged.

The Path to Green Energy, as the Google Earth tool is called, provides information on lands legally prohibited from commercial development, on natural habitats of endangered species, and on lands proposed for inclusion into the federal wilderness system.

The tool was developed by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the National Audubon Society with sponsorship from Google.org's Geo Challenge Grants. The grants program provides nonprofits with money to develop Google Earth tools. Each group receives a $25,000 grant to gather and organize data from within its own organization and from government agencies, including wildlife, game, and fish commissions.

The Path to Green Energy tool, which went live Wednesday, is freely available to the public and currently covers the Western states and the Dakotas.

The tool shows 14 types of areas within three main categories of land protection. Layers can be turned on individually or seen in merged views.

Path to Green Energy tool breaks land protections into three main categories: prohibited, restricted, and "should be avoided." Google Earth

Representatives from the groups said in a teleconference Wednesday that they see the Path to Green Energy maps as a proactive step in reaching out to energy developers before disputes arise over sensitive areas.

Locating environmentally responsible sites "will expedite rather than delay proposals (and) help gain widespread support for a project. It makes good business sense where your chances of getting approval quicker are better," said Johanna Wald, senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Environmentalists, too, want to see renewable energy projects like solar and wind farms go up quickly, and don't want to be tied up in legal battles or prevent progress any more than developers do, according to Wald.

"It will minimize permitting periods, conflict, and oppositions, which in turn will get us where we need to go: more renewable energy in people's homes," said Brian Rutledge, executive director of Audubon Wyoming.

The maps are timely since Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is putting together a federal task force to investigate which public lands could be used for renewable energy generation and transmission. On March 11, Salazar said that the Bureau of Land Management had identified 21 million acres of public land with wind energy potential in Western states, 29 million acres in Southwestern states with solar energy potential, and 140 million acres in Western states and Alaska with geothermal resource potential.

Wald said the Path to Green Energy tool might be useful for researching that task.

After years of confusion and controversy between developers and environmentalists throughout Wyoming, for example, a pilot version of the tool was used to identify habitats of the Greater Sage Grouse population. A current layer in Google now shows the lands that were signed into protection by Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal's executive order last August, while another shows grouse breeding density./p>

"In terms of the potential cost savings, they will be enormous. Anyone who is in the transmission or renewable energy business talks about cost in terms of money, time, and getting these approvals. Sometimes that can take far longer than the build-out process. So if we can streamline that process, it can help enormously," said David Bercovich, program manager at Google.org.

Path to Green Energy tool in Google Earth showing grouse breeding density and lands protected by the Wyoming governor's executive order. Google Earth