Surveying Fuels Energy
In the energy industry, land surveyors are involved from the most preliminary steps through to finished projects. Whether in electrical generation, wind farms, natural gas development, or nuclear power, surveying details provide key information, driving the success of the energy we rely on daily. While many of the tasks performed are similar, each component of energy generation contains nuances that land surveyors must anticipate and satisfy.
As electrical utility companies continue to upgrade transmission lines, convert existing facilities to be more efficient, and add new facilities, land surveying plays a key role in ensuring accurate planning. Professional land surveyors perform surveys regularly for electric utilities as these entities are continually working to acquire additional property and right-of-ways to expand their output and geographical service areas.
Boundary surveys are an important step in the process of these acquisitions. Land surveyors accurately map land boundaries and existing right-of-ways and easements, then work closely with utility companies to establish locations of proposed right-of-ways, new substations, and expansions to existing facilities. Legal descriptions and exhibits are prepared for transferring, acquiring, or expanding property ownership and right-of-ways. Without these surveys, the utility company is at risk later if they unknowingly construct improvements on someone else’s property.
Topographic mapping and boundary surveys are also used for updating utility company land records, acquiring access roads, subdividing and selling off excess property, and strategic planning for the future. When transferring ownership of property, typically an ALTA/ACSM Land Title Survey is required.
Before an electric utility company finalizes plans for a new construction project, land surveyors can provide a preliminary construction survey showing details on site topography, grades, existing utilities, and improvements, with important items and notations of which to be aware. After a project receives approval, land surveyors can also perform construction stakeout for new towers and substations. This ensures that the new construction perfectly aligns with existing transmission lines and/or equipment, and keeps the projects within specifications, on schedule, and within budget.
Because of increasing regulations for cleaner air, electric utility companies have been exploring new options in their energy generation processes. For example, a coal-fired generation plant might transition into co-generation output, combining coal with affordable and cleaner natural gas. In this case, land surveyors perform surveys and provide mapping necessary to design the most cost-effective gas pipeline route from the source to the generation plant.
Land surveying for electric utilities provides detailed information to planners, engineers and designers. The work also reduces risk and liability, and helps electric utility companies maintain compliance with ever-changing regulations within the power generation and transmission industries.
Over the past few years, natural gas deposits referred to as “plays” across the U.S. have created many great opportunities for land surveyors. With increased operations of extraction comes infrastructure build outs, including many miles of pipeline. These pipelines are very important in delivering resources to where they are needed.
As-built surveying has become an important component to each pipeline project’s workflow and has become a required service for a variety of reasons. The benefits to performing these types of surveys are primarily to ensure quality and integrity controls for a project during and after construction. The effort and capital that goes into the designing and permitting of these projects can be a hefty investment for all parties involved.
With that in mind, an as-built survey ensures that once a project is approved for construction, it is being installed per the approved design specifications and within the permitted route. These surveys also serve as a resource that pipeline companies use for reporting to state agencies. The data also enables businesses to have an accurate assessment of the total miles of pipelines that have been installed, which is very important to all parties that are invested in the success and accuracy of these projects.
As a land surveyor, we are providing our expertise in the energy field not just to clients but also to many others involved during an active construction project. For example, we assist the contractors with confirming depth of cover specifications. We also collect and manage all pipeline data associated with the pipe that is being used and work closely with the inspection teams to maintain the integrity and accuracy of the data.
As-built surveys prove to be instrumental during a pipeline project. If a pipeline business were to forgo as-built services, a variety of challenges would ensue. Whether connecting into an existing pipeline, designing a new pipeline to be installed within an existing right-of-way, or needing to excavate an existing pipeline for repairs, as-built surveys provide valuable intelligence in the pipeline arena.
Natural Gas Well Pads
Natural gas well pad operators focus on limiting liability and increasing efficiency, and land surveying’s precise information can provide a foundation to reach those goals. A good surveying consultant can be a guide through the maze of local procedures, often helping move projects forward quickly because of solid relationships and years of regional experience. Particularly when interacting with property owners and governing bodies, a dependable land surveyor will understand the nuances of local culture, practice, and politics.
The misconception of public data being extremely reliable, including parcel lines and LiDAR data, has led to the reduction of land surveyors employed on natural gas sites. Although each database tool has its place and is highly useful, there is no replacement for the accuracy of mapping a land surveyor can generate through field location.
For instance, county parcel lines are used to determine the location of a proposed well pad, impoundment, or access drive. Actual field locations of these lines have differed by more than 100 feet than the stored data. Without the right field survey information, numerous issues can arise for operators if they clear trees or start construction on an adjoiner’s land. The same disjointed information can be seen in using LiDAR, which typically has a contour interval of two feet. While LiDAR provides satisfactory results for a sketch plan, it does not cover data on other ground features such as utilities, rock fields, and property uses – all of which can impact construction. During site excavation, if the data used is off by a mere 12 inches, there is a significant difference in the cut or fill balance, which can greatly increase the cost of construction.
Pipelines on natural gas sites might occur over the course of months or years, and require diverse survey deliverables. Survey projects can include property plats, subdivision plans, highway occupancy permits for driveways, well plats, unitization plats, construction stakeout, and as-built services. Land surveyors must be able to thoroughly research and apply boundary law and principles to find subject property lines. Much of this work is submitted to state agencies, as they require the signature and seal of a Professional Land Surveyor licensed in the same state.
Land surveyors provide accuracy resulting in quality data and results, improving development of well pads while reducing liability. Their work also helps natural gas companies demonstrate accountability and respect for nearby landowners and local communities.
Much of the United States’ nuclear infrastructure is aging and in need of replacement or upgrades. Whether it’s reconstructing a cooling tower, installing a new cooling stack, or simply replacing equipment used in regular maintenance, professional land surveyors provide the information and details necessary to design and complete these projects in the most efficient manner.
In some cases, a nuclear facility might be decommissioned and possibly removed from the parent tract by subdivision to reduce overall liability. Land surveyors can perform ALTA/ACSM Land Title Surveys and prepare subdivision plans needed to complete this process, allowing the nuclear entity to continue its operations without being negatively affected by holding the decommissioned facility in its portfolio.
A specialty survey tool, high-definition scanning, plays an important role within the nuclear industry. Scanning equipment can quickly and safely acquire large amounts of data points that are more specific than those acquired with conventional surveying methods. As nuclear businesses replace aging devices, they need to be sure all connections come together seamlessly. High-definition scanning creates a “point cloud” that can virtually replicate buildings, equipment, and other site features in a highly accurate, scaled 3-D drawing. These drawings can then be used to evaluate what is currently in place, and retro-fit or design new locations for structures and equipment. This saves designers, engineers, and contractors time and money by using detailed and accurate information not previously available.
Scanning equipment can also be placed in areas not safe for personnel for extended periods of time when nuclear facilities are operational. Something as simple as a change in the level of an internal structure can jeopardize the safety of a nuclear operation. High-definition scanning can help determine the correct specifications to make both major and very minor adjustments.
Although the current focus in the U.S. is on alternative sources of energy, nuclear power will remain an important part of our long-term national energy strategy. Land surveyors will be there to support the nuclear industry by providing highly technical and innovative services, and will continue to be heavily involved in plant maintenance and upkeep.
Wind power energy has become a viable low-carbon source of alternative energy in today’s world, and from the earliest stages of any wind farm project to its completion, land surveying is involved.
In most cases a typical wind farm will cover thousands of acres and a multitude of properties. Survey data is needed for wind turbines themselves as well as the many connected needs: access drives, utilities, topography levels, erosion control, and drainage easements.
Land surveyors are responsible for performing ALTA/ACSM Land Title Surveys on the properties that make up a wind farm project. This assists both the project owner and designer in identifying any existing easements, right-of-ways, setback requirements, or other encumbrances affecting a property. Data from surveyors brings to light important details for locating turbines or related infrastructure in or near surveyed areas.
The layout of any wind farm project also requires accurate base mapping, for which the land surveyor uses GPS equipment to perform geodetic surveying and establish ground control for aerial mapping of the entire site. The aerial mapping enables the designer to layout access drives, utility lines, and turbine locations, as well as perform site grading and determine the location of sedimentation and erosion control measures.
Land surveyors are also involved in preparing easements, right-of-way plats, and legal descriptions for access drives, as well as utility and drainage easements. Upon approval of a final design, a land surveyor performs construction stakeout of all wind turbines and related infrastructure. After construction has been completed, an “as-built” survey of all improvements is performed and final as-built drawings are prepared.
Wind power energy and the development of wind farms would not be possible without the services of professional land surveyors, as their expertise enhances legal descriptions, prepares the way for accurate designs, and enables precise infrastructure planning and construction completion.
Future of Energy Markets
Energy markets within the United States are diverse, encompassing traditional energy generation through carbon-based fossil fuels and continued development of alternative and renewable energy sources. All facets of energy development and production impact the overall economy and well-being of our communities and industries. Changes in future energy markets will shape engineering and surveying companies’ services.
The electrical power generation market generally uses different types of fuels depending on the geographical region, but a majority have been dominated by coal-based electrical generation. Recent regulatory changes at the state and federal level are placing pressure on coal-based electrical generation, aiming for cleaner outputs. While these regulations are several years away from implementation, with litigation surrounding their progress, it is difficult to predict the ultimate portion of power generation that will eventually derive from coal. Production right now is depressed in coal markets, which may translate into electrical power suppliers continuing to diversify from coal-based generation to take advantage of lower natural gas prices and enhanced regulatory security – with heavy reliance on data from surveyors.
Natural gas-based electrical power generation continues to expand as new supplies of natural gas are brought to market throughout the U.S. from shale plays using hydraulic stimulation. While considered mostly a peaking fuel a decade ago, the Northeast and other markets are realizing significant turnover from coal-based generation to new combined-cycle, natural-gas-generation facilities.
Renewables and alternative generation remain a strong market in light of tax incentives and other market stimulants providing enhanced returns. Also, many states have renewable portfolio standards requiring a minimum threshold amount of generation from these sources for utilities, maintaining some demand in this market. If carbon-based restrictions are successfully implemented nationally, this market will continue to expand, along with nuclear energy, and result in a larger number of projects and applications for surveyors. While project economics and size limitations are significant challenges to overcome, the technology continues to improve and many net zero facilities – those aiming to generate all of the power they use – are pursuing higher and higher portions of renewable generation.
A crucial component for the future of energy markets and the projects that land surveyors help execute is within energy storage. With increasing quantities of renewable and alternative energy generation, the regional and national grids are often forced to balance traditional generation techniques with infrequent or cyclical energy generation such as solar power. Significant work is occurring by developing the means to store energy, such as providing access to the power generated on a windy day for later use, thus levelling net energy to the grid. From advanced battery technology to mechanical storage systems such as flywheels, this is a critical facet of the energy market and when successful on a commercial scale will again modify how our energy is generated and delivered to companies and residences.
While there is no certainty in a rapidly changing sector within the U.S., it is certain that land surveyors will have a wealth of diverse energy projects to collaborate on and assist in achieving successful and cost-effective energy supplies.
Surveying’s Crucial Role for the Future
The energy industry is continually affected by changing technologies, public opinion, and economic strategy. To remain ingrained within this scenario, land surveyors need to adapt and unceasingly pursue new expertise with introduced technologies. By doing this, land surveyors can anticipate client needs and provide the right tool in the toolbox for each particular job. The energy industry has provided a platform to apply new technologies across a diverse field.
While traditional boundary, topographic surveys, and as-built surveys previously used total stations and aerial photogrammetry, they now incorporate GPS, robotics and LiDAR as standards. High-definition scanning equipment in particular is being used at complex locations such as nuclear power plants, natural gas compressor stations, and electrical power substations. Ultra-precise survey tools and their accompanying procedures are also used to measure the movement of hydroelectric dams and turbines. Paired with the technological advances within the energy industry itself, projects are coming online faster and with more accurate planning than ever before.
In the future, new options are beginning to take hold, providing even more efficiencies for projects requiring in-depth analysis. One such option is unmanned aerial systems (UAS), which could be used for as-build open trench mapping of oil and natural gas pipelines. Tools such as 3D visualizations will allow industrial and power generation personnel in-the-moment viewing of obstructed and buried utilities based on exactly where they are standing in their own facilities. Plastic models will be provided to owners and operators, such as a precise as-built, scaled model of a cooling tower scanned in the field and reconstructed on a 3D printer.
Our clients are looking for experts on surveying, mapping, and support. As the energy market continues to advance, land surveyors must focus on becoming leaders in technology while maintaining their surveying skills and use of best practices.
The six authors of this article work for RETTEW. John Doughty is survey director, Ron Horst, Matt Foster and Doug Wolfe are project managers. Craig West is group manager and Jason Wert is a market leader.