New Portal Boosts Energy Research

Government officials now have access to vast amounts of data to help develop state energy policy and assess energy sustainability.
by | May 21, 2013 AT 5:00 PM

Researchers, analysts and policymakers now have an interactive Web portal that makes it easy to study energy resources, view infrastructure and compare carbon emissions state-by-state throughout the United States.
Developed by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) and launched in April, the site features customizable maps with a 36 distinct data layers that can display everything from the location of natural gas deposits and coal mines to electric transmission lines and potential wind power sites -- all at the national, state, Congressional district and county levels. 
EIA, the independent statistical and analytical agency within the U.S. Department of Energy, previously published the information in separate state energy profiles, but the new portal now pulls all that data into a central location, making research more efficient and thorough. 
The portal also summarizes each state's ranking of its energy production, consumption, prices and emissions; compiles external links to state-specific energy resources; offers detailed information on the nation's 6,300 power plants; and shows who owns what energy resources in specific locations. For example, the map can show whether a pipeline located on federal lands is under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of Interior's Bureau of Land Management or the U.S. Forest Service.  
Jeffrey Pillon of the National Association of State Energy Officials (NASEO) says the mapping feature of EIA's new portal is most useful. 

"That's very valuable to help inform the policymakers because you can give them a good visual representation on where pipelines, power plants and wind turbine farms are," Pillon said. "It can be helpful in developing a better understanding of how those energy resources are distributed."
The portal was developed by EIA staff in nine months at a cost of approximately $130,000. The map uses GIS mapping software and pulls geodata from a variety of governmental agencies. According to Mark Elbert, the director of EIA's Office of Web Management, the amount of interagency cooperation was a challenge, particularly in the area of data security. Due to a lot of post-911 measures, there was a lot of "scrubbing" of federal websites, particularly of geographical information, so it took awhile for guidance to emerge on how granular the display of data should be.
"To be honest, it was still a little daunting to get this in front of people at the TSA [Transportation Security Administration] and Department of Homeland Security," Elbert said. "There are various groups within the government who are delegated with certain aspects of security, so we had to talk to a lot of people."
Because of those security concerns, the map was modified to limit the zoom capabilities. The U.S. Department of Transportation's pipeline layer, for example, was restricted so a person can only view one county at a time. There were also various copyright restrictions from commercial vendors that didn't want certain power grids displayed at close resolution.
Because the EIA wanted to focus on quality assurance and system stability, the map is updated on a quarterly basis instead of in real-time.
Although he's gotten feedback that most of the portal's use is by intensive users that rely on desktop computing, Elbert hopes to create a mobile-friendly site for smartphone users and is confident a market exists for it.
NASEO's Pillon feels the EIA's challenge going forward won't be in acquiring data, but rather presenting it in a way so it can be understood clearly by multiple audiences.
"We increase our capability to provide finer levels of details, but it's important for people to understand what that detail really means and interpret that data in a correct way," Pillon said.