Technical Potential Assessments

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The REZ process is an approach to connect areas with concentrated, high-quality renewable energy resources to the power grid. One of the first steps of the process is to identify areas with these high-quality resources, suitable topography and land-use designations for development. Geographic information systems (GIS)-based renewable energy resource and technical potential assessments play a central role in this step to identify these areas capable of supporting high levels of renewable energy development.

Resource and technical potential assessments

The resource potential represents the theoretical availability of an energy resource (such as wind speed or solar irradiance) in a defined region. Resource potential is a foundational input to the subsequent analyses of resource, technical, economic, and market potential (See Figure 1), which yield estimates of power generation and cost under realistic conditions based on actual, screened resource availability.

Technical potential estimates the capacity (MW), potential annual generation (GWh), and suitable land area for development of a renewable energy technology (solar PV, wind turbines, etc.) after accounting for topographic limitations, land-use constraints, and system performance. Once feasible land areas are defined, technology-specific system modeling calculates maximum electric power generation based  on renewable energy resources, available land, and various system assumptions. Estimation of technical potential begins with the resource potential. All of this potential may not be technically exploitable, however, as a result of a number of constraints to development that may include protected areas, certain terrain features (such as areas with a high slope), water bodies, populated urban zones, land-use designations (such as farm or forest land), and many other pertinent constraints.

As part of the REZ process, technical potential assessment enables the initial identification of study areas that are technically capable of supporting high-quality renewable energy resource development. Following the technical potential analysis, economic analyses can further filter the study areas based on economic considerations such as technology costs, applicable incentives, electricity prices, among others. In subsequent steps of the REZ process, developers are invited to demonstrate interest in those areas that have the highest probability of commercial development.

from Britton ~09/19/18

Figure. Types of renewable energy potential

For more information see Lopez et al. 2012Brown et al. 2016, and Lee et al. 2018

How GIS-based technical potential assessments are completed in the REZ process

1. Identify constraints and collect data

Resource and technical potential assessment begin with the collection or development of data on renewable energy resources (wind speed, solar irradiance, etc.) and complementary data on geographic and development features that may be barriers to development such as dense urban areas, rugged terrain, large water bodies, and protected areas. These and possibly more constraints need to be considered during the identification of study areas in the REZ process. The data collected in this step is then employed in the technical potential analyses.

Figure. Renewable energy resources and possible constraints to development

2. Conduct technical potential analyses

Step 2 identifies areas with attractive technical potential and development opportunities. The renewable energy resource data and geographic features from step 1 are represented as data layers that can be combined and analyzed. Renewable energy resource data are analyzed to estimate power generation by modeling generation system (such as wind, solar PV) size, operating hours, and other considerations. The result is then used in an exclusion layer analysis. Supercomputers and geodatabases store, process, and analyze terabytes of timeseries data spanning the globe. Results can be loaded into online tools like Renewable Energy Data Explorer ( for further visualization and analysis.

An exclusion layer analysis identifies the technically feasible areas by systematically filtering out areas that have development constraints and highlighting priority areas for development. This analysis may consider multiple scenarios of potential development exclusions.

from Britton ~09/19/18

Figure. GIS-based technical potential assessment approach

3. Perform further analyses and mapping

The technical potential analysis identifies study areas that could support high levels of renewable energy development. In next steps of the REZ process, economic analyses can help to further filter the study areas based on economic consideration such as costs.

Reading list and case studies

U.S. Renewable Energy Technical Potentials: A GIS-Based Analysis

U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), 2012

Estimating the technical potential of an energy resource factors in the performance of the particular intended technology and  location specific limitations related to topographic, environmental, or land-use constraints. The calculated technical potential effectively serves as an upper limit of what a generation technology could deliver in specific location, for the amount of energy that is technically possible to attain will always be less than that which is economically feasible. By using a geographic information system (GIS) to analyze location-specific potential, this report gives technical potential generation and capacity estimates for several renewable energy technologies for the entire United States, broken down on a state-by-state level. It is especially valuable to have a single reference that utilized the same assumptions and methodologies  in calculating these technical potential figures. Note: technologies have been steadily improving and land-use is ever-changing, so care should be taken to use the most up-to-date information and technological specifics when analyzing resource potential.

Task 2 Report—A GIS-Based Technical Potential Assessment of Domestic Energy Resources for Electricity Generation: Energy Alternatives Study for the Lao People’s Democratic Republic: Smart Infrastructure for the Mekong Program

NREL and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), 2018

Technical resource potential assessment can be valuable in areas heavily reliant on one source of power looking to diversify their energy mix. The country of Laos is heavily dependant on hydropower, leaving its electricity reliability subject to variations in available water.  By first evaluating the technical potential from various domestic energy resources, the nation can more effectively pursue the best solution(s) to diversifying its future energy generation profile and meeting its forecasted increase in energy demand, all while increasing the independence, reliability, and resilience of its energy system. This study found substantial domestic solar, wind, and biomass potential in the nation--significant enough, in fact, that the nation could possibly even become an energy exporter in the future.

Renewable Energy Data, Analysis, and Decisions: A Guide for Practitioners

NREL and USAID, 2018

Reliable and relevant geospatial data are paramount in increasing renewable energy adoption. This document serves as a reference to policymakers, planners, technical experts, consultants, and academics towards utilizing the best and most relevant geospatial and temporal data into their analyses. It guides these parties through questions relating to their decisions on target setting, policymaking, investment, and grid integration and how to use and analyze data to inform these decisions for various renewable energy resources.

Assessing and Mapping Renewable Energy Resources

World Bank, 2016

Resource mapping and assessment is a prerequisite for renewable energy generation planning. This information can be used to understand where to best build renewable energy infrastructure, but also to inform policy makers and project developers. The small upfront cost for this process can yield significant economic, environmental, and social benefits. This report serves as a guide explaining the importance of this process and outlining the best practices for attaining sound results. It builds on past experience in twelve countries to promote a three level (preliminary, validated, and observed) approach for resource assessment and mapping prior to providing information to governments and commercial developers.

Western Renewable Energy Zones, Phase 1: Qualified Resource Area (QRA) Identification Technical Report

NREL, 2009

The Western Governor’s Association is a collection of governors of the western states in the United States. They pursued and investigated a local Renewable Energy Zone analysis, called the Western Renewable Energy Zone (WREZ) initiative. Phase 1 of their process involved a technical resource assessment to identify “Qualified Resource Areas” (QRAs). This process identified nearly 200 GW of potential renewable energy resources in 53 QRAs, largely through wind and solar. This phase also incorporated an economic analysis to screen and further screen their identified zones.


Technical Potential Tutorial Series

NREL, 2017

This three-part tutorial series introduces technical potential analysis, describes how technical potential is assessed, and familiarizes viewers with the Technical Potential geospatial analysis tool on Renewable Energy Data Explorer, the flagship tool from RE-Explorer. The tutorial concentrates on renewable energy technical potential for wind and solar and answers the key questions:

1. What is technical potential?

2. How is technical potential assessed?

3. How can I use RE-Explorer to assess technical potential?

Online platforms

Renewable Energy Data Explorer

USAID and NREL, 2018

The Renewable Energy Data Explorer, the flagship tool of the RE-Explorer, facilitates renewable energy decision-making, investment, and deployment through a dynamic, online analytical tool. RE-Explorer provides renewable energy data, analytical tools, and technical assistance to developers, policymakers, and decision makers in developing countries. It enables meaningful decisions that support low-emission development and ultimately reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This tool can help planners to identify and visualize potential REZs through the evaluation of accessibility and feasibility (technical potential) and energy resource quality and quantity.

Additionally, the Renewable Energy Data Catalog is a central location for research and discovery of the renewable energy resource and spatial data that powers RE-Explorer, as well as a place for researchers to contribute data in support of the project.

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