As the world’s finite fuel sources become increasingly scarce and costly, and high-carbon energy production continues to damage the environment, the need for effective implementation of renewable energy is more important than ever. Dr Paul Elsner is an expert in geographic data science, with his current research focusing on the use of geo-spatial modelling to inform the placement and positioning of renewable energy investments.
“We are giving decision-makers the tools to develop clean energy policy pathways”
The opening up of global satellite data archives from NASA, the United States Geological Survey and the European Space Agency in the last 15 years has revolutionised our capacity to make better decisions about renewable energy. “We now have access to 50 years of uninterrupted satellite data, as well the first near-global modelling of Earth’s wind fields,” says Paul. “This allows us to create digital models with different data layers that can be used to explore the potential of different areas for the generation of low-carbon electricity. This information helps to optimise spatial decisions about where we place wind and solar energy projects, to ensure the greatest possible energy output.”
Paul’s work focuses on wind and solar because these are ‘mature’ technologies that are competitive on a market level. They have been the cheapest way to generate electricity for the last few years, well before the current energy crisis. “One of the underappreciated benefits of developing offshore wind or solar parks, beyond just being cleaner energy, is that you can lock in a safe price guarantee for the next 30 years,” explains Paul. “In times when access to gas and other fossil fuels is compromised by geo-political conflicts, this also provides energy security for many countries.”
One of Paul’s most exciting projects examines offshore wind potential in Africa. When over 600 million people on the continent lack access to electricity, and the majority of their largest energy producers have committed to reaching net-zero emissions by mid-century, it is an area where sustainable energy development could make a real difference. By using radar data sets, Paul has established that many African coastal states have immense potential for wind energy, including South Africa, Mozambique, Madagascar, Algeria and Morocco. “In identifying these specific locations and demonstrating their cost-effectiveness, we are giving decision-makers the tools to develop clean energy policy pathways. It is about facilitating a long-term outlook and the development of safe, reliable energy infrastructures.”
To ensure that this research reaches the right people and that discussions are brought up to date with the technology, Paul has been working with the World Bank Group and the Global Wind Energy Council to look at new markets for offshore wind. He is also a consultant for UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission on marine spatial planning and the sustainable use of ocean and coastal resources. Paul is passionate about enabling further research in this area. He recently spoke at a meeting of the UN Working Group on Marine Geospatial Information about the value of free and open geospatial information for global sustainable development.
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