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Interactive Web Portal Opens Door to Energy Research

Government officials now have access to vast amounts of data to help develop state energy policy, assess energy sustainability.

by / May 21, 2013
U.S. Energy Information Administration

A new interactive Web portal is making it easier for researchers to study energy resources and compare carbon emissions state-by-state throughout the U.S.

Developed by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) and launched in April, the site features customizable maps with a variety of data layers, including the ability to display energy resources and infrastructure at the national, state, Congressional district or county level.

EIA — the independent statistical and analytical agency within the U.S. Department of Energy — previously published the information in separate state energy profiles. The profiles were used by policy makers, researchers, analysts and other decision makers to evaluate the energy market. The new portal now pulls all that data into a central location, making research more efficient and thorough for users.

Mark Elbert, director of EIA’s Office of Web Management, said the interactive map provides approximately 36 distinct layers of information that can be toggled on and off.  For example, users can zoom in on maps to see energy facilities and resources relating to production, distribution, fossil fuel resources and renewable energy. The portal also summarizes each state’s ranking of its energy production, consumption, prices and emissions.

Other features include a variety of external links to state-specific energy resources, and the ability to see who owns what energy resources in specific locations. For example, the map can show whether a pipeline located in federal lands is under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of Interior’s Bureau of Land Management, or if a resource is in an area run by the U.S. Forest Service.  There’s also detailed information on the 6,300 power plants in the U.S., including fuel usage and monthly energy output.

The new capabilities have been valuable for stakeholders such as the National Association of State Energy Officials (NASEO). The association represents the interests of the State and Territory Energy Offices (SEOs) that were formed as a result of the energy crisis in the 1970s. Those offices are responsible for energy policies and research in the U.S.

Jeffrey Pillon, director of NASEO’s Energy Assurance Program explained that association members find the mapping feature of EIA’s new portal useful because of how it displays the locations of energy infrastructure geographically between states and regions.

“That’s very valuable to help inform the policy makers, because you can give them a good visual representation on where pipelines, power plants and wind turbine farms are at,” Pillon said. “It can be helpful in developing a better understanding of how those energy resources are distributed.”

Data Scrubbing; Mobile Future

The portal was developed by EIA staff over a period of nine months for approximately $130,000. The map uses Esri’s GIS mapping software and pulls geodata from a variety of governmental agencies. For example, EIA uses wind maps from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

According to Elbert, the amount of interagency cooperation was a challenge, particularly in the area of data security. He said that 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 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.”

One modification made to the portal because of those meetings and security concerns was a limitation on the ability to zoom in on an area. The U.S. Department of Transportation’s pipeline layer on the map was restricted so a person can only view one county at a time. There were also various copyright restrictions from commercial vendors that did not want certain power grids displayed at close resolution.

Although the data sources are diverse, the map isn’t updated in real-time. Elbert explained that EIA wanted to focus on quality assurance and system stability. Instead of automating the process, they decided to manually gather the data from the other agencies, review it, and then update the portal on a quarterly basis.

As time goes on, EIA hopes to upgrade the portal. One of the things they’d like to do is create a mobile site so smartphone users have a streamlined method of accessing the data.

Although he’s gotten feedback from researchers and people on Capitol Hill that most of the portal’s use is by intensive users that rely on desktop computing, Elbert was confident a market exists for a mobile version of the site.

Pillon was supportive of the moves EIA has made with the portal and its future plans. He felt the challenge for EIA 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.

This story originally appeared on image courtesy of U.S. EIA.

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Brian Heaton

Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.

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