Micro-Satellite Tracks Carbon Polluters From Space


Simulated satellite image of methane plume from French Guyana’s Petit Saut hydroelectric power plant. Image: GHGSat

Attention greenhouse gas emitters: There’s a new eye in the sky that will soon be photographing your carbon footprint and selling the images to any and all. It’s a micro-satellite dubbed “Claire” (clear, bright, and clean in French) by its Montreal-based developer, GHGSat.

This microwave-oven-sized pollution paparazzo rocketed to a 512-kilometer-high orbit in mid-June care of the Indian Space Agency, with a mission to remotely measure the plumes of carbon dioxide and methane wafting up from myriad sources on Earth’s surface. Claire’s targets include power plants, natural gas fracking fields, rice paddies, and much more—just about any emissions source that someone with a checkbook (corporations, regulators, activists) wants tracked, according to GHGSat president Stéphane Germain.

Germain says Claire’s data can improve compliance reporting to regulators and carbon markets, enable tracking of industrial efficiency, and provide competitive intelligence, among other uses. “Our vision is to be the global standard for emissions monitoring across the world. That’s ambitious, but we think it’s attainable,” he says.

Space agencies already monitor emissions from orbit. They have launched a series of satellites such as NASA’s OCO-2 to specifically track atmospheric CO2 and methane, and those missions are delivering an important reality check on national pollution inventories, which are based largely on engineering estimates.

Both satellite and ground-based research has identified vast undercounting of methane emissions by the U.S. EPA, prompting the agency to revise its inventories earlier this year.

However, OCO-2 and other satellites such as Europe’s Tropomi and Japan’sIbuki were primarily designed to generate data for climate models, and thus emphasize a wide field and exquisite greenhouse-gas level precision but with low spatial resolution. Germain says GHGSat is designed for a totally different mission.

“We have deliberately limited the scope of the physical field of view. We know where the emissions are coming from. All we need to do is point at known sites and characterize the plume from the facilities,” says Germain.

Like its predecessors, Claire uses an infrared spectrometer to detect telltale patterns of sunlight absorption that indicate levels of atmospheric CO2 and methane. Unlike its predecessors, which use “push-broom” spectrometers that scan side to side to generate a 2-D spectral database, Claire has an imaging spectrometer that takes a series of 2-D spectral snapshots as the micro-satellite passes overhead.

Telescopic lensing focuses Claire’s spectrometer to take 12 kilometer x 12 kilometer snapshots. With its 0.25 megapixel detector, each pixel thus represents a 25 meter x 25 meter plot of ground—a spatial resolution two orders of magnitude higher resolution than OCO-2.

GHGSat also parted ways with its predecessors on cooling. Cryogenic cooling of spectrometers minimizes background noise for missions such as OCO-2. Claire does without cooling to minimize complexity and weight, helping keep total project cost including launch below C$10 million (US $7.7 million). Signal-to-noise ratio is maintained, says Germain, by combining multiple snapshots and filtering out noise.


Claire. Photo: GHGSat Inc.

Further data processing turns Claire’s composite images of CO2 and methane concentrations above a given site into an estimate of the rate at which gases are flowing from their source. GHGSat will do this by factoring in data on wind speed and direction, using the same “inverse modeling” proven by OCO-2 and Tropomi.

Some pre-launch coverage of GHGSat was skeptical of the firm’s ability to deliver. InsideClimate News wrote last month that most scientists it contacted questioned the readiness of both remote sensing technology and inverse modeling to deliver reliable emissions estimates.

Harvard University remote sensing expert Daniel Jacob, a GHGSat collaborator, strikes a more optimistic tone. He told IEEE Spectrum that if Claire’s spectrometer can deliver the +/- 1 to 5 percent precision that GHGSat is predicting, “the ability to detect point sources will be impressive.”

GHGSat expects to complete testing of Claire’s systems this month and to begin making observations for initial customers within a month or two. Up first are hydropower reservoirs in Québec and Manitoba and large tailings ponds associated with oil sands mining in Alberta. Estimating emissions from the latter is currently dangerous, costly, and fraught with uncertainty levels in excess of 50 percent. Ground measurements taken simultaneously at those sites will validate the satellite’s performance.

Plans are already afoot, meanwhile, to launch a second satellite in 12-18 months to assure continuity of observations should Claire malfunction and to expand GHGSat’s customer capacity. (Claire will be able to monitor over 1,000 sites per year.)

More satellites will also enable more frequent tracking of a given site. While Claire orbits Earth every 90 minutes, its route takes it within range of the same site just once every two weeks. That could make data from one or a few satellites hard to interpret for dynamic operations, such as power plants that ramp up and down hourly or daily or natural gas compressor stations and fracking wells that sporadically belch large volumes of methane.

Germain says that, with sufficient demand, they may ultimately launch a fleet large enough to meet even those challenges: “It’s well within the reach of our business case to get to daily measurements, or even to 2 to 3 times per day.”

This post was created for Energywise, IEEE Spectrum’s blog about the future of energy, climate, and the smart grid

Does Electrification Really Cause Economic Growth?


Villages brightened from 2001 (L) to 2011 (R). Images: Burlig & Preonas / NOAA

Electrification is associated with a seemingly endless list of social and economic goods. Nations that use more power tend to have increased income levels and educational attainment and lower risk of infant mortality, to name but a few. So I was baffled to stumble across a pair of economic analyses on electrification in India and Kenya, posted last month, that cast serious doubt on what has long assumed to be a causal link between the glow of electricity and rural development.

“It is difficult to find evidence in the data that electrification is dramatically transforming rural India,” concludes Fiona Burlig, a fourth-year UC Berkeley doctoral student in agricultural and resource economics who coauthored the India study. “In the medium term, rural electrification just doesn’t appear to be a silver bullet for development.” Continue reading

Wind Could Provide Over 26% of Chinese Electricity by 2030

Last month I argued that the primary reason Chinese wind farms underperform versus their U.S.-based counterparts is that China’s grid operators deliberately favor operation of coal-fired power plants. Such curtailment of wind power has both economic and technical roots, and it has raised serious questions about whether China can rely on an expanding role for wind energy. New research published today appears to put those concerns to rest, arguing that wind power in China should still grow dramatically.

The report today in the journal Nature Energy projects that wind energy could affordably meet over one-quarter of China’s projected 2030 electricity demand—up from just 3.3 percent of demand last year.

In fact the researchers, from MIT and Tsinghua University, project that modest improvements to the flexibility of China’s grid would enable wind power to grow a further 17 percent. That, they argue, means that China’s non-fossil resources could grow well beyond the 20 percent level that China pledged to achieve under the Paris Climate Agreement. Continue reading

The Natural Gas Accounting Gap

Last month the U.S. EPA admitted it was way off in its estimate of how much methane producers leak into the atmosphere in the process of wresting natural gas from the ground and piping it across the continent. It’s a big deal since methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide and likely responsible for a substantial fraction of the climate change we’re already experiencing. And it’s been a long time coming. For many years now methane measurements by airplanes and satellites have strongly suggested that methane emissions from the oil and gas patch could be double what EPA figures captured.

Today the online earth observation pub Earthzine has my take on an unusual research project that helped convince EPA — and the industry — to change their tune on methane emissions. Take me to the article…

Beetles, Cacti, and Killer Plants Inspire Energy Efficiency

What do you get when you mix a desert beetle, a pitcher plant, and a cactus? Pick the right parts and you get an extremely slippery surface with an uncanny capacity to condense and collect water, according to research reported today in the journal Nature.

The advance could be a big deal for the energy world because, when it comes to energy efficiency, condensation lies somewhere between a necessary evil and a major drag. Nuclear, coal, and thermal solar power plants, for example, require large heat exchangers to condense the steam exiting from their turbines so that they can raise a new round of hotter steam. For other devices, such as wind turbines and refrigerator coils, condensation is the first step towards energy-sapping ice formation. Continue reading

How the Paris Climate Deal Happened and Why It Matters

One month after the terror attacks that traumatized Paris, the city has produced a climate agreement that is being hailed as a massive expression of hope. On Monday the U.K. Guardian dubbed the Paris Agreement, “the world’s greatest diplomatic success.” Distant observers may be tempted to discount such effusive language as hyperbole, yet there are reasons to be optimistic that last weekend’s climate deal finally sets the world on course towards decisive mutual action against global climate change.

The birthing process clearly sets Paris apart from earlier efforts at global climate action, such as the Kyoto Protocol crafted in 1997. Only last-minute intervention by then U.S. Vice President Al Gore clinched a deal at Kyoto Continue reading

Paris Climate Talks Facing Growing Carbon Emissions and Credibility Gaps

Credit: Peter Fairley

EN GARDE! Paris treaty pledges are still too rich, and contain some iffy ingredients

Three weeks before the start of the Paris climate talks, negotiators working to craft an international agreement to curb rising global greenhouse gas emissions are staring into a wide gulf between what countries are willing to do and what they need to do. Most countries have stepped up with pledges to meaningfully cut carbon emissions or to at least slow the growth of emission totals between 2020 and 2030. However, national commitments for the Paris talks still fall short of what’s needed to prevent the average global temperature in 2100 from being any more than 2 degrees Celsius warmer than at the start of this century—the international community’s consensus benchmark for climate impact.

Worse still, the national pledges employ a hodgepodge of accounting methods that include some significant loopholes that ignore important emissions such as leaking methane from U.S. oil and gas production and underreported coal emissions from China. How the promised emissions reductions will be verified post-Paris is “a big debate right now and it makes a massive difference in the numbers,” says Jennifer Morgan, global director for the climate program at the World Resources Institute (WRI), a Washington, D.C.-based non-governmental organization. Continue reading