Fabian is looking for land to invest in RES
In the following story, any resemblance to real persons and events is coincidental 🙂
Discover more stories about Fabian, who solves problems using GIS.Box.
Fabian’s company – a real estate consultancy – has decided to participate in the energy transition. And to make money from it.
The energy transition is happening now. One of its effects that we see every day is the photovoltaic farms that are popping up like mushrooms after the rain. You can see them from the windows of trains, and cars. Of course, the construction of the farm itself and the production of green energy is the last part of the whole investment process, which consists of:
- finding a suitable site,
- signing an agreement with the owners,
- obtaining a number of permits (including connection conditions)
- the construction itself
- exploitation of the farm
The most important, and not mentioned, element of this process is of course the financial model of the whole undertaking, because the transition has to pay off. Every company has a different approach: some look for sites for large developments, others for smaller ones, but at the end of the day the financier’s Excel sheet must always be in the green.
Whether the financier’s spreadsheet is 'in the green’ and whether it ultimately gives the 'green light’ for investment depends on a plethora of factors, much of which depends on the situation on the ground, on the map. You won’t find information on the map about energy prices a decade out, or the price and delivery time of panels, but you will find plenty of data that will influence the profitability of investments. First and foremost:
- Can I build anything at all in a given location? (nature conservation areas, local plans)
- Where is the nearest point where I can 'plug in’ to the grid?
- What kind of land is it? What is its class (read: what will be the costs of de-landing?)?
- What will be the cost of building infrastructure (e.g. cables)?
The corporation’s board of directors decided that land scouting would be handled by a new unit, a start-up whose main purpose would be to search for land for investment (screening), reserve land, and obtain permits (permitting). The land, ready for the construction of the farm, was to be further sold to international investors, specialised in the exploitation of the farm.
The task seemed fairly straightforward:
- John became the CEO of the start-up: a financier from London, a partner in Fabian’s corporation. He was the one who was supposed to make sure that the financial plan (and result!) matched up. In addition, he had extensive experience in the financial and legal aspects of RES investments and had access to investors from the City of London.
- Magda and Karolina joined the Polish branch of the corporation and were tasked with organising teams (hiring young people who are not afraid of working in the field, with people with whom they will have to negotiate a lot).
- The teams were tasked with finding sites, establishing relations with owners, and signing contracts. Each team consisted of 10 people.
After the grand opening, the day-to-day began. The task actually seemed quite simple: „Go, search, deliver great sites!” Teams sat with their noses in their computers all the time, occasionally someone would go to the other end of Poland on a business trip, and lots of spreadsheets were created. Someone was constantly sending PDF files with formats of potential sites to someone. Operational management was entrusted to the team leaders. John would supervise the start-up in a meeting with Magda and Karolina once a month.
After two quarters, the startup’s sponsor, i.e. the corporate board, upon meeting the teams from Central Europe, asked for a presentation, a report on the startup’s performance. The presentation was to be made by Karolina. Fabian was not particularly interested, but he was eventually in the room during the presentation.
It did not go well…
Karolina showed a map of Poland with some dots and potential locations. On the next slides, there were a lot of screenshots from geoportal.gov.pl with lines drawn in Corel, some tables, and some lists. It failed to give the impression of success. To make matters worse, the questions began:
- How many hectares of land were summarily 'signed off’ across the country?
- Someone said that the potential investment in Luboń was very close to the river and asked if it was not, by any chance, a floodplain.
- Someone else tried to enquire which plots of land had been analysed in the vicinity of the GPZ, which is supposed to be upgraded and there are opportunities for available capacity.
- When asked about land reserved by competitors, farms under construction, and the possibility of using land not for PV but for wind energy, Karolina did not know how to answer.
The board had been left with an impression of chaos. In addition, John, who knew the financial results, had no reason to be happy:
- Extremely high expenses on employees
- Extremely high expenses on cars, fuel, hotels, etc.
The result of six months’ work turned out to be a few Excel sheets and several hundred PDF files containing some data…
Fabian had already guessed halfway through the presentation what the source of the problems was. He knew how to help. After the presentation, he approached John and offered his help in changing the way the startup operates. He knew this was a place where GIS would bring great value.
To start with, he wanted to know the whole story. So he gathered as many people involved in the startup as possible for a meeting/workshop:
He asked them simple questions:
- How do you look for these plots of land?
- Based on what data?
- How do you archive the results of your work?
- What is the information flow like?
What he found out did not surprise him at all:
- The team had a very different background (from builders to art historians)
- The team did not have standardised tools. Some worked on geoportal.gov.pl, some were familiar with QGIS, and the data circulation was done almost exclusively by e-mail.
- Power lines and main power points data were once bought from someone. In fact, nobody remembered when or from whom.
- The teams were divided territorially. Everyone more or less knew what was going on in their municipality/district, but in case of employee turnover, all knowledge would disappear with them…
- Spatial data was verified on geoportal.gov.pl, local geoportals, or other geoservices. Knowledge about the origin and quality of the data was almost non-existent.
In summary: nothing new. This is happening in many places. How to solve this issue?
The plan, or how to fix it?
First and foremost, Fabian did a workshop with Magda, Karolina, and John. The aim of the workshop was to plan the change.
- Together they defined the main objective of the project. The goal was to increase the land bank (land reserved with owners for future developments) and reduce the cost of acquiring land by half. From then on, each action had to pass a review to see if it was getting them closer to achieving their goal.
- The next step was a presentation of Fabian’s achievements so far (including the investment land base that Fabian had organised) and some pretty good public GIS systems. The aim of this presentation was to raise and equalise the level of knowledge among the management team on potential opportunities. Without increasing their knowledge of GIS, Magda, Karolina, and John would have found it difficult to implement GIS-based procedures. They promised themselves that they would do a similar workshop with the whole team.
- The next step was to gather ideas for the so-called information products, i.e. tools with which they could achieve their goal more easily. This is where Fabian helped the most:
- A common database on main power points, electricity infrastructure, forms of nature conservation, and other environmental constraints (floodplains, mining areas, etc.). All employees should have easy access to this data. This will save them the trouble of repeatedly searching for the same data
- An inventory tool for the analysed areas in order to accumulate knowledge of the work done.
- An online collaboration tool. The idea is to easily search for relevant sites, presenting them at meetings and during fieldwork.
- They then proceeded to explore the possibilities.
Fabian naturally suggested using GIS.Box, which he was familiar with and liked. He figured that all the necessary products could be created from a standard tool. But there were counter-proposals:
– How about using QGIS? – suggested Karolina. The suggestion wasn’t bad: it’s free software, and half the team uses it anyway… Fabian replied:
– QGIS is a good option. You mentioned the advantages, however, it has a lot of disadvantages: it’s professional software: people might be afraid to use it: too many icons: and they are afraid they will mess something up. Plus: we have a high turnover, and training takes time and can be expensive, and we would benefit from 3% of the possibilities QGIS offers.
– How about some CRM, then? – John suggested. We want to collect owner information anyway. Maybe we can adapt something that is on the market?
– We can’t do it without a map. That’s not the way to go…
The workshop ended late in the afternoon. After the presentation and workshop, they each had dozens of unread emails, so they said they would meet in two days. Fabian had a full day to think through the ideas and configure GIS.Box.
The solution, i.e. what did Fabian do?
1. The database
Fabian uploaded the following data into GIS.Box:
- Main Supply Points – a shp file that Karolina had bought for a few grand. It turned out that these were locations downloaded from OpenStreetMap with some valuable attributes added (date of last upgrade, date of planned upgrade, etc.)
- The location of the highest, high, medium, and low voltage lines. He downloaded this data partly from OpenStreetMap and partly from BDOT10K. He had nothing better… For the time being, it had to suffice.
- He uploaded a layer with districts and municipalities. Added some interesting attributes (link to the local geoportal, BIP, etc.) The attributes were blank, but he is going to encourage people from the startup to fill in the data. It will certainly be useful.
- He added a WMS with
- Plots of land from the National Land Registry Integration
- Underground infrastructure from the National Land Registry
- Plans from the National Integration of Local Development Plans
- Forms of nature protection from GDOŚ
- Orthophotomap from Geoportal.gov.pl
Everyone was to have access to this data. Updating this data proved to be a major issue. At a later stage, it turned out to be a full-time job for one person. Łukasz, a man from Magda’s team, became the company’s data administrator and instead of searching for sites, he regularly searched for data on the operators’ websites and obtained information on planned upgrades and construction of power grids.
2. Plot inventory
This was a challenge! It turns out that looking for plots of land is not that simple. Depending on the investor’s business profile, it turned out that everyone is looking for something different:
- One wants huge plots of land (complexes of plots of around 100 ha), which can be quite far from the GPZ. With this scale of investment, bringing 25 km of cable is not a problem.
- Another wants smaller plots of land, near the transformers.
- The third takes everything as it comes, as long as there are only a few owners to deal with.
- The fourth one buys everything at random because he wants to build electrolysers and produce green hydrogen. They’re independent of the grid connection conditions, so the land can be anywhere.
This is where the new GIS.Box module – Site Finder – came in handy, along with tools such as Create New Object with Plot Geometry. Fabian prepared data sources with relevant vocabularies and devised procedures for the teams to:
- First search for sites with the search engine, then
- Analyse by criteria that cannot yet be automated (land classes, planning, ownership)
- If a plot of land was prospective, a complex had to be compiled from it and provided with additional attributes.
This element was the most variable, and this is where procedures changed frequently. The process was refined as the knowledge and skills of the team increased.
3. The online collaboration tool
This is where it was the easiest, as basically nothing needed to be done. GIS.Box had everything. Monthly meetings on Teams with John were basically a virtual tour of the country to check on the progress of documentation acquisition and to solve current problems, estimate risks, and make decisions. Using an interactive map along with full information from the inventory and context from public data, there were no questions that could not be answered.
Establishing procedures and configuring the System, however, is only part of the success. The key element is to make sure that everyone in the team understands how the procedures work and respects them. How did this happen in our start-up?
- Firstly, there was a training course on the basics of GIS (what is the difference between a vector and a WMS, and what is the point of these coordinate systems) with large elements of discussing spatial information infrastructure in Poland (i.e. what is the point of there being so many geoportals, some of which have data from other sources). This was a necessary step to make sure everyone was operating with the same concepts. The training was recorded and placed in the company’s knowledge base for recall from time to time and for onboarding new employees.
- This was followed by a presentation on GIS.Box as a tool for collaborative working. Here Fabian, who had the most technical knowledge, helped a little. At the training, everyone learned that they had access to a consistent database and a search engine. It was a very big relief for everyone that they no longer had to search for multiple sources at the same time.
- Next, the procedures for plot inventories were discussed and debated for the first time. The discussions were heated. Thanks to the knowledge from the training sessions, everyone knew that some of the data could be analysed automatically and some (those from the WMS) unfortunately not… It was agreed that in the initial period, the procedures would be reviewed once a month in order to come to an optimum.
- Then the most difficult stage took place, the „babysitting period”. Employees started to act, and every now, and then they reported problems. Some were satisfied, some were… less satisfied, but gradually everyone started to act on GIS.Box.
- The monthly review of procedures brought interesting conclusions, based on which attributes or dictionary values were slightly modified. It was a good time.
A positive ending, or another mid-year presentation
After the successful implementation, Fabian was rarely interested in the startup and RES. In fact, he was heroically solving other problems that his corporation was facing… All current issues were solved by Magda and Karolina together with the Team.
Very quickly it became apparent that GIS.Box had become the primary source of information and the GIS.Box tab was constantly open even with John showing specially prepared data at meetings with investors. He didn’t ask anyone to prepare presentations, printouts etc. He was well aware that the data was always up-to-date and correct.