Wednesday, January 27, 2016

WECC Launches New Environmental Data Viewer, an Interactive Transmission Planning Tool Designed to Minimize Environmental Risks and Reduce Costs

By Amelia Schlusser, Staff Attorney

WECC's Environmental Data Viewer allows
transmission planners to assess environmental and
cultural risks and estimate capital and mitigation
costs over the entire western grid.

Earlier this month, the Western Electricity Coordinating Council (WECC) launched an impressive new transmission expansion planning tool that is publicly available on WECC’s website. This Environmental Data Viewer layers geospatial data representing environmental and cultural risks onto an interactive map. The goal of the program is to minimize future environmental issues and financial costs for new electrical transmission infrastructure by providing planners with compiled and stakeholder reviewed data.  

The map application, which was developed by ICF International and is powered by CartoDB, integrates environmental and cultural data sets identified by WECC’s Environmental Data Work Group into a map of the WECC region, which encompasses the entire western interconnection—the integrated electrical grid delivering power to consumers throughout the western United States. The Environmental Data Viewer allows users to draw a hypothetical transmission line onto the map, identify the potential environmental risks associated with the siting of the line, and estimate the capital and mitigation costs associated with the line.

Each parcel of land on the map is assigned one of four tiered environmental risk classifications. Class 1 lands follow existing transmission corridors and have the lowest environmental risks and associated development-related costs. Class 2 lands are areas with ecosystems and/or species at moderate risk, and may be publicly or privately owned. Class 3 lands are areas with irreplaceable natural or cultural resources, endangered or threatened species, critical or priority habitat, big game winter range, or other publicly owned land with significant restrictions on transmission development. Class 4 lands are areas containing public lands with complete development restrictions, such as national parks and wilderness areas.

Users can draw hypothetical transmission lines onto the
map, which generates a summary of the line's environmental
risk exposure and estimates capital and mitigation costs.
In addition to the environmental risk categories, users have the option to view other data layers on the map, such as existing transmission lines and other infrastructure, other environmental data, and land ownership. Users can also select a different base map, such as a topographic map, street map, or National Geographic map.

WECC’s Environmental Data Viewer enables users to assess environmental and cultural risks during transmission planning. The tool allows prospective transmission developers and other stakeholders to evaluate and mitigate environmental and cultural risks and related costs prior to the siting phase of transmission development. By allowing developers and stakeholders to address risks upfront, the Environmental Data Viewer will help them to avoid conflicts and related costs later on in the development process.  With an increasing focus on regional and landscape scale planning, such as the Bureau of Land Management and US Forest Service’s recent Greater Sage-Grouse management plans, tools like the Environmental Data Viewer provide a consistent, early planning-stage look at potential issues across state, provincial and other jurisdictions boundaries.

The Environmental Data Viewer provides an extremely useful tool for transmission planners and other interested stakeholders, and should prove increasingly valuable in coming years as federal and state regulatory programs encourage utilities to move away from coal-fired power and increase renewable energy capacity throughout the west. Our existing transmission infrastructure was largely designed to transmit electricity from large, geographically isolated coal-fired power plants to urban load centers (i.e. cities), and shifts in the west’s electricity resource mix will subsequently alter the location and capacity of the region’s future transmission needs. New transmission infrastructure will be necessary to access remote renewable energy resources, and WECC’s Environmental Data Viewer will help facilitate strategic, advanced transmission planning that minimizes environmental impacts and reduces capital and mitigation-related costs. The transition to a sustainable, reliable, modern electricity grid will require new technologies, optimized operational and planning practices, and ingenuity, and WECC has provided a useful tool for the energy transition toolbox.


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