NASA Launches its First Carbon-Tracking Satellite

Photo: Bill Ingalls/NASA

Photo: Bill Ingalls/NASA

It’s been a rough birthing process for NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) satellite program, which promises global tracking of carbon dioxide entering and leaving the atmosphere at ground level. Five years ago the first OCO fell into the Antarctic Ocean and sank, trapped inside the nose cone of a Taurus XL launch vehicle that failed to separate during launch. The angst deepened yesterday when NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) scrubbed a first attempt to launch a twin of the lost $280-million satellite, OCO-2, after sensors spotted trouble with the launch pad’s water-flood vibration-damping system less than a minute before ignition.

But this morning OCO’s troubles became history. At 2:56 a.m. PDT a Delta II rocket carrying the OCO-2 satellite roared off the pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. According to JPL, the OCO separated from the Delta II’s second stage 56 minutes later and settled into an initial 690-kilometer-high orbit. If all goes well it will maneuver into a final 705-km orbit over the next month, putting it at the head of an international multi-satellite constellation of Earth-observing satellites known as the A-Train. Continue reading

Two REAL Carbon-Capturing Coal Power Plants

The IPCC recently stated that failure to deploy technology to capture carbon emissions from coal would double the cost of stopping climate change. Two coal-fired power plants nearing completion in Saskatchewan and Mississippi will be the first in the world to actually prove the technology, capturing their CO2 emissions and store that bolus of greenhouse gases underground.

You can read about how they will do it in my latest piece for Technology Review. One point dropped from that story bears stressing. Part of what makes the extra cost of carbon capture feasible for these plants is that they have buyers for their CO2: oilfield operators who will use the stuff as a solvent to loosen up petroleum stuck in aging oil wells. That means the CO2 may not be permanently trapped underground warns Sarah Forbes, a carbon capture expert at the Washington-based World Resources Institute.

In Canada, however, expectations are higher according to Robert Watson, CEO of SaskPower, the utility completing the coal-fired power plant in Saskatchewan. Watson told me that the oilfield operator taking his plant’s CO2 must ensure that any CO2 that comes back to the surface with produced oil is recycled back underground: “They’re going to have to assure the government that they can account for all of the CO2 they use all of the time.”

Sniffing Gas: White House Taps ARPA-E to Boost Methane Detection

Gasbot 2.0. Photo: Victor Hernandez

Gasbot photo: Victor Hernandez

In this month’s issue of IEEE Spectrum we spotlight the methane emissions overlooked by the U.S. EPA’s greenhouse gas inventory, and the satellite-based detector launching next year to map this “missing methane.” Last week the White House acknowledged EPA’s missing methane problem, and laid out a strategy to combat it. While promising to improve EPA’s inventory, including more use of top-down methane measurement, the White House also promised federal investment in ground-based methane sensing to plug leaky natural gas systems thought to be the source of much of the missing methane.

Action can’t come soon enough according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which on Monday unveiled its latest report onClimate Change Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. The IPCC said “widespread and consequential” impacts are already visible and world leaders have only a few years to change course to avoid catastrophic warning. Methane is a major contributor according to the scientific body’s update on the physical basis for climate change, released last fall, which deemed methane to be up to 44 percent more potent as a warming agent than previously recognized. Continue reading

Satellites and Simulations Track Missing Methane

In the April 2014 issue of IEEE Spectrum:

Methane emissions from oil and gas extraction, herding livestock, and other human activities in the United States are likely 25 to 75 percent higher than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency currently recognizes, according to ameta-analysis of methane emissions research published recently in Science. While experts in remote sensing debate the merits of this and other recent challenges to the EPA’s numbers, definitive answers are already on order via a high-precision Earth observation satellite to be launched next year.

The intensifying methane emissions debate has profound implications for climate and energy policy. Natural gas consumption is rising, and methane’s global warming impact is more than 30 times as much as that of carbon dioxide, molecule for molecule, and second only to carbon dioxide’s in today’s net climate impact …

click to read on

Rendering Greenhouse Gases Visible

Natural gas has no odor, but you can smell a leak thanks to the addition of an odorific mercaptam compound. Do carbon dioxide and other similarly odorless greenhouse gases (GHGs) require some analogous device to make their presence known and thus prompt evasive action? Yes, and for these ubiquitous gases, it will be a visual cue indicating the source and quantity of GHGs Continue reading

Applying ‘Trust, but verify’ to Climate Change Policy

Last year Swiss researchers demonstrated that European countries release more of the potent greenhouse gas trifluoromethane than they report. It was just the latest in a growing number of case studies showing that polluters and governments might be under-estimating their climate change impact, but it served to highlight the science and technology that can reveal such cheating Continue reading

Should Carbon Capture Capture Carbon Credits?

Click image to see IEA's Nobuo Tanaka zeroing in on CCS at Poznan

Click image to see IEA's Tanaka on CCS at Poznan

International climate change negotiators gathered in Poznan, Poland to draft a follow-on to the Kyoto protocol appear to have rejected the talks’ most controversial proposal: giving a big boost to carbon capture and storage (CCS), whereby carbon dioxide produced by coal-fired power plants is trapped deep underground. The proposal was to award carbon credits to developing countries that installed CCS equipment — credits that they could then sell to industrialized nations or companies — but this morning opponents successfully tabled the proposal until next June, according to climate policy blog Climatico.

Countries pushing the credits-for-CCS proposal included Japan, Norway, Australia and Canada. All are major coal consumers eyeing CCS to meet their own greenhouse gas reduction targets and/or oil and gas producers that could dual-purpose captured CO2 for enhanced oil recovery. Japan and Canada also figure among the nations furthest behind in meeting emissions cuts mandated by the Kyoto protocol, and could be big buyers of CCS-generated carbon credits.

International Energy Agency executive director Nobuo Tanaka had also added his support (see video). Tanaka calls credits a means of accelerating development of capture and sequestration technologies, which the IEA sees as crucial to control emissions in countries such as China that will remain heavily dependent on coal for decades to come. “These technologies need all the financial help they can get,” says Tanaka.

But the idea remained red-hot among the climate activists swarming Poznan this week as it unites a controversial technology with an already controversial program. They see carbon sequestration as a potentially risky technology that could delay the transition from coal to solar, wind and other forms of renewable energy. Meanwhile the UN’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), which manages the awarding of carbon credits to developing nations, attracts scorn from those who see carbon trading as a numbers game by which countries will avoid making real emissions cuts.

Many question whether emissions cuts certified for millions of dollars worth of credits under the CDM wouldn’t have occurred anyway — whether they offer ‘additionality’ in the UN lingo flowing in Poland this week.

The UN acknowledged possible problems after spot-checking a leading CDM certification firm and identifying a series of “non-conformities” in its auditing practices. The firm, DNV Certification AS, was suspended but insists it is addressing the concerns identified to regain its accreditation.

Poznan’s ministerial-level talks start tomorrow and should wrap up Friday. Unless they pop CCS back onto the agenda the credits proposal will be stalled until next June’s followup meeting in Bonn. That meeting is a prelude to the big game that will define global energy policy: final negotiations and, if all goes as planned, the signing of a ‘Kyoto II’ treaty in Copenhagen next December.

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This post was created for the Technology Review Editors Blog: Insights, opinions and analysis of the latest in emerging technologies