At 15-kilograms, Claire, the size of a microwave oven, zips around the planet at 7-kilometres a second. When flying above the Alberta oil sands, her sensors zero in on a tailing pond and record carbon dioxide and methane emissions. Claire is a demonstration microsatellite operated by GHGSat, the first commercial company to offer greenhouse gas monitoring services using satellite technology.
“Claire’s been very busy. We’ve taken measurements of over 2000 sites now worldwide,” said Stephane Germain, chief executive officer of GHGSat, at the Canadian SmallSat Symposium in Toronto. “We’re very excited for the future and we’ve got a great application that will be very helpful for environmental sustainability.”
Germain was inspired to start GHGSat after the cap-and-trade system was announced in Quebec, which sets limits on how much carbon can be emitted by a company before having to pay for it. Carbon pricing schemes such as cap-and-trade or a carbon tax assign a price tag per ton of carbon. “We knew we had a technical solution to help provide better measurements so we put the two together and realised there’s a market for these kinds of services,” said Germain.
According to the World Bank, the market of carbon trading, taxes, and credits is currently worth over $50-billion USD and growing— Canada joined the list of countries to have nation-wide carbon pricing requirements in 2016, and countries such as China, Mexico and South Africa are soon to roll out their own carbon pricing plans. “Companies are paying attention and realizing they have to do a better job of understanding, monitoring, and reducing their emissions,” said Germain.
Industry partners in areas such as oil and gas, power generation, mining, waste management and agriculture can provide GHGSat with specific coordinates of a site they would like monitored. Location-specific data is then collected and analysed to provide emissions rates, trends and leak alerts. In addition, using satellite technology is often cheaper and more accurate than on-the-ground measurement methods.
Germain used monitoring emissions from the oilsands as an example of an application: the current method of measuring methane emissions from a tailing pond is to have a flux chamber—a hood that sits over the tailing pond to measure and predict emissions rates. However, these measurements are prone to uncertainty, are usually conducted annually and have safety risks as the chamber must be human-operated. Satellite technology would be able to take measurements every two to four weeks without the safety hazard.
Unlike satellites run by national space agencies that constantly monitor global levels of greenhouse gas emissions, Claire can operate at a much more granular level, honing in on a specific site or facility. “It’s a fundamentally different requirement and therefore a different technology to serve it,” said Germain.
Claire successor, GHGSat-C1 will launch at end the end of 2018 or early 2019. The company is also developing a sensors to be deployed on an aircraft to complement the satellite data. Imaging from the aircraft can be taken at a higher resolution but less frequently, while satellite data is taken at a lower resolution but more frequently. Combining the two would gives the best of both worlds.
“We’re very excited about those next two deployments, and from there it’s a matter of capacity to meets demand,” said Germain. GHGSat’s first customers were Canadian, and the company is looking to establish in markets in other countries such as India and China. “That is a tremendous challenge to us, to get that commercial role-up, but it’s a good challenge.”
More stories from the Canadian SmallSat Symposium 2018.