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By Samuel R. Avro on Apr 2, 2009 with no responses

New Google Earth Maps Show Where Renewable Energy Projects Can Be Built

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The maps, covering protected areas in 13 western states, are available for the public to view

The National Audubon Society and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) have created maps --using Google Earth-- of restricted lands and sensitive wildlife areas in the western U.S., to help plan development projects by avoiding such areas.

Two environmental groups have teamed up with Google in an effort to help steer renewable energy development away from sensitive areas, by utilizing Google Earth maps.

The National Audubon Society and the Natural Resources Defense Council on Wednesday unveiled the new tool –which is called the Path to Green Energy– and it’s available for the public to use.

“We need to deploy clean energy on an unprecedented scale,” said David Bercovich, Google.org Program Manager. “As we decide where to build renewable energy generation plants and transmission lines, it’s essential that we protect irreplaceable wildlife and landscapes while making it as easy as possible for developers to build these projects.

The new maps pulled together endangered species habitats, national parks and other forms of protected land from 13 western states and loaded all the data on Google Earth.

The analysis covers about 860 million acres, about half the land area of the lower 48 states in Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.

There are currently 128 million acres, or 15 percent of the mapped out areas, that are protected. More than two-thirds of the protected areas occur in just six of the 13 states: Arizona, California, Idaho, Montana, Nevada and Utah.

“We must strike a winning balance to meet growing energy needs and this project shows we can,” said Frances Beinecke, President of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “This map demonstrates a way forward for renewable energy development and protection of our wildlife and landscapes across the West.”

Users can zoom in on the Mojave Desert and see every bit of land that is off-limits to developers of solar projects. The zones that are not available to be developed on appear as brightly colored shapes superimposed on maps and aerial photographs.

Google.org, which made $25,000 grants to the NRDC and the National Audubon Society as part of its Geo Challenge Grants program, hopes that the new maps will ultimately end up saving money for renewable energy developers.

“Anyone who is in the transmission or renewable energy generation business talks about the costs in terms of money, the costs in terms of time, and most importantly, the uncertainty of getting these approvals,” Bercovich said. “If we can get people to the right areas and get toward consensus and streamline that process, that can deliver enormous benefits and help us get clean energy online faster.”

The maps include habitat data for more than 170 species.

“They kept asking me, ‘Please tell me where I shouldn’t go,’ ” says Johanna Wald, senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, about solar and wind companies that ask where they can, and can not build. “They understand it doesn’t make good business sense to go someplace that’s going to generate a lot of controversy.”

It remains a work in progress, say it’s developers. They want to add more states and species as well as information showing places that have the most sunshine and the strongest winds.

To view these maps on Google Earth, download the layer here.