Selecting Sites for Renewable Energy Projects

kGlenn A. Richard, Mineral Physics Institute, Stony Brook University

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This material is replicated on a number of sites as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service Project


Google Earth View of Geothermal Power Facilities

Society's efforts to find and develop renewable energy sources are driven by the need to mitigate detrimental environmental effects brought about by some current sources, and supply problems associated with using non-renewable sources. For these reasons, energy issues are currently prominent in the media. Future scientists and other citizens need to become literate concerning the technical aspects of using renewable energy sources, and how these sources relate to Earth system processes.

In this activity, undergraduate students use Google Earth to investigate a variety of renewable energy sources and select sites within the United States that would be appropriate for projects based on those sources. These sources include solar energy, bioenergy, hydroelectricity, tidal power, wind energy, wave energy, geothermal, osmotic, and ocean and lake thermal energy.

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Learning Goals


  • Learn how renewable energy relates to Earth system processes
  • Use Google Earth to explore a variety of renewable energy sources
  • Study examples of existing renewable energy facilities
  • Create map overlays on Google Earth
  • Use maps and other data to identify locations where these energy sources could be used
  • Use Google Earth to propose, mark, and document specific sites for renewable energy projects
  • Consider possible environmental effects of the development of renewable energy resources
  • Evaluate a set of maps that use a variety of means of displaying information about bioenergy in the United States

Context for Use

This activity is suitable for:

  • Introductory undergraduate geoscience and environmental studies courses for majors in these areas as well as non-majors
  • Upper level undergraduate courses that focus on energy or environmental issues
  • Advanced high school Earth science or physics courses

The activity needs to be conducted in a computer laboratory, where all students can work at computer stations individually or in pairs. The laboratory also needs to be equipped with an instructor station connected to a projector so that the students can observe what the instructor is doing during the activity. All stations must have internet access, and have Google Earth and a web browser installed. The instructor should have enough prior knowledge of Google Earth to be able to troubleshoot common problems related to errors that students may make. The students should know how to use the Fly To tab in the Search pane, how to zoom in and out, and how to pan the view. They also need to know how to create folders, overlays, and placemarks in Google Earth. They should be familiar with the navigation controls and components of the toolbar. The students must have access to accounts that enable them to visit off-campus web sites. The operating system should be configured to recognize kmz files, so that the browser offers to open them in Google Earth.

Prior to participating in this activity, the students need to have an understanding of the following energy-related concepts:

  • Insolation
  • The water cycle
  • Wind and other meteorological phenomena
  • Heat flow within the Earth's interior and bodies of water
  • Photosynthesis and primary production
  • The laws of thermodynamics
  • Units of energy and power
  • The scale of typical energy usage by individuals and society
  • The scale, in terms of power, of typical renewable energy facilities
  • Potential energy, including formulas
  • Kinetic energy, including formulas
  • Power, including formulas

This exercise was originally used in an undergraduate course at Stony Brook University - GEO 311: Geoscience and Global Concerns. Enrollment in the course was a mixture of geoscience and non-geoscience majors.

Description and Teaching Materials

Students need the following handout to guide the activity:

Word document (Microsoft Word 70kB Apr11 11) or pdf document (Acrobat (PDF) 64kB Apr11 11)

Access to an electronic copy of the pdf file will enable them to conveniently navigate hyperlinks needed for this activity.

In addition, they need to be given a link to the following data file (zip format), which contains two Google Earth KMZ files:
Data File (Zip Archive 759kB Oct21 08)

Also hand out the one-page Google Earth Tip Sheet (.pdf)
Google Earth Tip Sheet (Acrobat (PDF) 440kB Nov20 08)

The Google Earth Student User Guide will also be helpful to them.

Teaching Notes and Tips

This activity is designed for one class session of about 80 minutes or two class sessions of at least 40 minutes each. Actual time needed for this exercise may vary depending upon the amount of previous experience students have had using Google Earth and the amount of time devoted to informal discussion during the exercise. The exercise may require two periods of 80 minutes each if the students are not yet familiar with creating overlays and placemarks in Google Earth.

Prior to the exercise, the instructor should look through the References and Resources section below, and be prepared to offer the students guidance regarding which resources might be deemed best for the context of the course. The students do not need to restrict their proposed sites to power plants. For instance, they can also propose district energy infrastructure and EERE Clean Cities transportation projects if they have learned these concepts. In addition to marking sites with point placemarks, they can also create Google Earth paths to mark routes for biofueled buses or Google Earth polygons to outline proposed district energy service areas.

The Google Earth data file provided with this exercise contains examples of overlays. If the students are not familiar with how to create their own overlays and placemarks, this needs to be demonstrated for them. A good example for them to begin with is to overlay the California map from the Energy Information Administration's Energy Potential Maps web page that is referenced in their handout. They should then open the Environmental Protection Agency's Maps and Incentive Sheets page to open the Renewable Energy Interactive Map data on Google Earth. This file contains placemarks of polluted sites that indicate their suitability as sources of various forms of renewable energy. With that data and the California Overlay, the students can identify and placemark an appropriate site for a solar energy project for practice.

Potential Renewable Energy Sites
Google Earth with overlays of maps from the Energy Information Administration and data on polluted sites with potential for renewable energy development from the Environmental Protection Agency.

Undergraduate students typically find Google Earth intuitive and easy to use concerning navigation and viewing of mapped data. During the activity, it is important to have available people who can assist students who have problems while using the computer stations. Assistants need to have good prior knowledge about the subject matter and about the techniques of using Google Earth. If this exercise constitutes the students' first exposure to Google Earth, they may initially need some help learning how expand and collapse the listings of data in the Places pane. Some people find saving Google Earth data confusing. Students should be made aware of the online resources that provide information on using Google Earth.

It is best to associate the exercise with some discussion in order to stimulate ideas among the students about complex interrelationships between components of the Earth system. The students learn most effectively if the instructor conducts periodic class discussions about the questions during the activity, even though it may make the assessment process less rigorous if the handouts are to be returned to the instructor for grading. Alternatively, a discussion could be conducted after the handouts are graded and returned to the students, but that unless that is done in a computer laboratory, this would prevent the discussion from being integrated with use of the computer stations.

In GEO 311: Geoscience and Global Concerns at Stony Brook University, we engaged the students periodically in informal discussion during the exercise, and had them hand it in at the end of the session for grading. They need to be provided with a means of handing in a Google Earth kmz file electronically in response to question 1. For question 2, they can either be asked to write the answer on the handout for submission, or they can be required to hand it in electronically.

Continuing the Study in Greater Depth

As a variation or follow-up to this exercise, students can be asked to propose and map renewable energy facilities for a specified city or region, such as their own. They should begin with an assessment of what potential energy sources and siting options are provided by the natural and built environment in the selected locality, a survey of existing energy facilities, and a determination of the energy needs of the population to be served. The students can base their needs assessment on an average rate of electricity use of about 1500 watts per capita for the United States as a whole, or upon another figure that applies specifically to the region of interest. In addition to marking points with placemarks, students can be asked to demarcate areas or represent other details of their proposed sites with Google Earth paths or polygons. Students with knowledge of ArcGIS and access to appropriate regional data can use that package for performing their analysis and mapping as an alternative to using Google Earth.


Assessment of the students' understanding of topic can be accomplished through:

  • Observation of their responses during discussion that accompanies the activity
  • Grading of the answers that students supply on their handout and in the kmz file that they submit electronically
  • Students' answers to questions about the material in class quizzes or exams

Since some components of this exercise call for qualitative judgments on the part of students, which may reasonably be expected to vary, grading should be somewhat for these portions, in order to enable the students to feel comfortable being creative.

References and Resources

Introductory Information

Data File (zip archive) (Zip Archive 759kB Oct21 08)
Energy Information Administration Renewable Potential Maps (Source of maps that can be made into overlays on Google Earth)
Environmental Protection Agency: Maps and Incentive Sheets (Offers placemarks for contaminated sites with potential for renewable energy development.)
Google Earth User Guide: Using Image Overlays and 3D Models

Examples of Existing and Planned Renewable Energy Facilities

Solar Power: Solar Power Plant Proposed for Chicago
Biomass: From Waste to Heat in Didcot
Hydropower: New York Power Authority: Niagara Power Project
Tidal Power: Rance tidal power plant
Wind Energy: Altamont Pass Wind Farm
Wave Energy: Islay LIMPET Wave Power Plant
Geothermal Energy: The Geysers
Ocean Source Cooling: Honolulu Seawater Air Conditioning
Lake Source Cooling: Cornell Lake Source Cooling
Osmotic Energy: Statkraft Osmotic Power Prototype

Also see NPR: Visualizing The U.S. Electric Grid.

Sources of Renewable Energy

Solar Energy
Energy Information Administration: Solar Thermal
Wikipedia: Solar energy
United States Department of Energy: Photovoltaic Cells
United States Department of Energy: Sunshot Initiative
American Solar Energy Society
Solar Electric Light Fund

United States Department of Agriculture: Bioenergy

EERE Clean Cities Program
United States Department of Energy: Bioenergy
United States Department of Energy: Biomass Program
National Renewable Energy Laboratory: Biomass Maps

United States Department of Energy Wind and Hydropower Technologies Program
Wikipedia: Hydroelectricity

Tidal Power
Maine Tidal Power
Wikipedia: Tidal power
Blue Energy International
European Marine Energy Centre

Wind Energy
National Renewable Energy Laboratory: Wind Energy Resource Atlas of the United States
United States Department of Energy: Wind Powering America
United States Department of Energy Wind Technology Program
AWS Truewind
American Wind Energy Association
Navitas Energy

Wave Energy 
Ocean Power Technologies
EPRI Wave Energy Conversion (WEC) Project
Google Earth Community: Pelamis wave energy converter
European Marine Energy Centre

Geothermal Energy 
United States Department of Energy Geothermal Technologies Program
Great Basin Center for Geothermal Energy
United States Geological Survey: Geothermal Energy - Clean Power From the Earth's Heat
Geo-Heat Center
Geothermal Resources Council
Google Earth Community: Geothermal Power Facilities

Renewable Energy Threads on the Google Earth Community Forums

Solar Array at Brookhaven National Laboratory 
Drake Landing Solar Community

Midsize Photovoltaic Arrays 
Solar Umbrella House 
Solar Power Plant Proposed for Chicago 
International Competition in Photovoltaic Industry 
Sarnia Solar Farm 
World's Largest Solar-Powered Hotel 
Solar furnace - Australian National Uni, Canberra 
Innovation at MIT for Storing Solar Energy 
Solar Energy Policy Changes in New Jersey 

Atlantic Wind Connection 
Hawaii Wind Power Overlays 
All Scottish Windfarms operational or proposed 
California wind power overlay 
Wind Park Eemshaven 
wind power 
African boy turns junk into power 
All the Windmills in Holland 

Ffestiniog Pumped-storage Power Station 
Blenheim-Gilboa Pumped Storage Power Project 
Yards Creek Generating Station 
Matilija Dam (Removal planned) Wired Article 
Geesthacht Energy Park 
Raccoon Mountain Reservoir, The Belo Monte dam 
Removal of Edwards Dam Ten Years Ago 

Geothermal Power Facilities
Low Temperature Geothermal Electricity Generation 

Roosevelt Island Tidal Energy Project 
Sound of Islay Tidal Power Array 
New York Tidal Power Project Proposed in 1913

Pelamis wave energy converter 
Islay LIMPET Wave Power Plant 
Anaconda wave energy converter 
Toftestallen Wave Energy OWC site 

Ocean and Lake Source Cooling
Honolulu Seawater Air Conditioning 
Nat'l Energy Lab. of Hawai'i Authority (NELHA) 

Statkraft Osmotic Power Prototype 
Itoitz dam, a giant with butter-feet

From Waste to Heat in Didcot 
The idea of biofuels is good, but.... 
GreenHunter Energy Biofuel Plant 

Green Architecture 
Empresas Transoceanica HQ is a LEED Building 
Building-Integrated Photovoltaics 
Renewable Energy House, Brussels 

Public Transportation 
Streetcars Transforming U.S. Cities 

Energy Efficient Cooking with Biomass 
Cook Stoves from Aprovecho Research Center 

Metals and Other Critical Materials 
Mountain Pass Rare Earth Mine 

Energy Storage Technologies 
Batteries Created by Viruses 

Australian Renewable Energy Generators

Additional Maps and General Information

Environmental Protection Agency: Maps and Incentive Sheets 
National Renewable Energy Laboratory: Data and Tools 
National Renewable Energy Laboratory: State Renewable Electricity Profiles 
United States Environmental Protection Agency: Renewable Energy Interactive Mapping Tool 
California On-Line Energy Maps 
DOE: Energy Frontier Research Centers (EFRC)

Google Earth Information

Google Earth User Guide 
Marking Places 
Using Places 
Editing Places and Folders 
Using Image Overlays and 3D Models


The KML Screen Overlay Maker Utility