We try to tell a story. The maps are tools to help us do that.
The United States is experiencing incredible growth in clean energy, with the cost of a range of renewable energy technologies falling by as much as 94%.
But numbers alone don’t always show the full story.
That’s where Billy Roberts and his team at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) come in.
“Many people don’t know how to interpret data,” Roberts said. “So we try to give them a better idea of what they’re looking at.”
Roberts is the chief cartographer at NREL. He oversees the creation of cutting-edge maps to visually demonstrate the extensive data sets that lab researchers collect.
“Very often, our products go out to general readers in the public or elected officials who aren’t specialists in a scientific field,” said Roberts. “It’s really important to make it very clear what they are looking at. We try to tell a story. The maps are tools to help us do that.”
View Some of NREL's Favorite Maps
Mapping out the Future
Roberts first developed his cartography skills in college at Texas State University. He started out as a biology major but discovered a keen interest in graphic design. Eventually somebody suggested he sign up for a Cartography 101 class.
“I remember sitting there and thinking, I can’t believe people get paid to do this—it was so much fun,” he said. “That’s when I switched careers and began studying geographic information systems, or GIS.”
After working with various agencies within Texas state government, Roberts began his career as a GIS specialist at NREL about a decade ago. As he describes it, mapping standards were much lower in the industry at the time.
“Back then, much of the focus was solely on the analysis,” Roberts said. “That part is obviously important, but it’s also critical to make the output look good and comprehensible to different audiences.”
It was right around that time that GIS technology began to take off. With his background in the arts and knowledge of GIS, Roberts began receiving more and more requests related to maps at NREL.
“In today’s world, the bar is pretty high for what users expect,” he said. “You can’t be putting out research that looks like it was made in a 1980s CAD program. The GIS and design technologies have merged to help us make sharper, more modern imagery—visuals that are compatible with stuff they see elsewhere online.”
Making the Maps
Roberts’ team has created hundreds of maps depicting a wide variety of energy projections and scenarios. Each one helps the public better understand the changing dynamics of the country’s energy mix. Roberts is especially proud of the work the team has undertaken mapping U.S. domestic solar capacity, calling it one of the best data sets in the world to show what solar resources are available on the state, national, and continental level.
Hitting the Big Screen
The 12-person GIS team analyzes data and creates striking maps that you’ve probably seen featured in prominent media outlets. As the maps are made available to the public, they often end up used in books, academic journals, and even the occasional Hollywood movie. Oliver Stone’s 2010 Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, starring Michael Douglas, featured a scene in which a group of corporate executives make a sales pitch for a major solar investment—using one of the team’s maps.
“A co-worker recognized it when they saw the movie,” Roberts recounts. “The maps are also great advertising for NREL.”