Google maps the best places to go green

Looks like Google is using its Google Earth mapping tool to help prospective green energy projects ruffle as few ecological feathers as possible. In a partnership with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Audubon Society, Google has produced color-coded maps showing areas in 13 Western states where new green energy projects are most likely to meet a fight--and where they're most likely to take off the easiest.

The mapping tool, called the Path to Green Energy, is the result of a $25,000 Google.org grant to the NRDC and the Audubon Society as part of Google's Geo Challenge Grants program. The goal is to help steer new green energy programs--like wind farms and solar projects--away from known sensitive areas such as restricted lands or wildlife habitats.

While green energy projects aren't nearly as ecologically disruptive as say, new oil derricks or coal mines, they can produce problems for wildlife. As the New York Times quotes Audubon exec Brian Rutledge:

“We have species of birds, for example, that won’t nest within 200 yards of a road, period,’’ he said. Some prairie birds will not venture anywhere near a vertical object like a tower or a power-line pylon, he said, probably because they are genetically imprinted to avoid natural vertical features, like trees, where predators perch. The lesser prairie chicken, he said, will not cross under a power line, even between widely spaced towers. “It becomes like a river down the middle of their population base,’’ he said.

Avoiding such conflicts at a green energy project's outset can save both time and money, says Google.org program manager David Bercovich:

"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."

According to NRDC, the tool covers 13 Western states and about 1.3 million square miles, or about half the land area of the lower 48 states. Some interesting statistics:

  • About 128 million acres, or about 15% of the area studied, is currently considered protected, either because it's within designated wilderness areas or part of the national parks system.

  • Idaho (29%), California (25%) and Utah (21%) have the highest percentages of protected areas.

  • More than two-thirds of the protected areas fall in just six of the 13 states: Arizona, California, Idaho, Montana, Nevada and Utah.

To learn how to avoid these conflicts for your next green project, visit the NRDC page and download the Google Earth-based mapping tool.

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