Satellites and AI could track carbon emissions in real time

satellite AI carbon emissions
Image credit: Andrey Armyagov / Shutterstock.com

ITEM: A non-profit AI firm has revealed plans to combine AI with satellite imagery to track carbon emissions from every power plant on Earth in real time – and it could be a game changer in the battle against climate change.

The company, WattTime – which has received a $1.7 million grant from Google’s philanthropic wing, Google.org, for the project – says it plans to do this using satellite data generated by different sensors operating at different wavelengths, including thermal infrared. Satellite networks like Copernicus and Landsat make that data publicly available, while private firms like like Digital Globe sell it for a fee.

WattTime will compile that data and process it via AI algorithms to detect signs of emissions, according to Vox:

It has already been demonstrated that a great deal of pollution can be tracked simply through identifying visible smoke. WattTime says it can also use infrared imaging to identify heat from smokestack plumes or cooling-water discharge. Sensors that can directly track NO2 emissions are in development, according to WattTime executive director Gavin McCormick.

WattTime reckons all of that data can be used to calculate exact, real-time emissions data (including carbon emissions) for every power plant in the world.

This in itself is a pretty big deal, Vox reports, partly because one of the great challenges of combating climate change is not just passing regulations limiting carbon emissions, but also being able to enforce those regulations, and that means knowing when power plants are violating them. The problem is that it’s difficult to monitor every single power plant all the time, and some unscrupulous plants (as well as local or national governments and at least one major car manufacturer) have been known to fiddle with emissions data to make them look compliant.

The WattTime project could potentially solve that problem by creating an independent, reliable and trustworthy pool of data that is generated in real time.

It could also help with the implementation of automated emissions reduction (AER), a software-based technology developed by WattTime that aims to help companies manage carbon emissions by enabling, say, their HVAC systems to adjust power consumption to match when clean energy is available on the grid. (WattTime’s McCormick explains the concept in this interview.) AER works best when accurate data on power-plant emissions are available – which is what the satellite/AI project promises to provide.

The satellite data could also help renewable energy developers know where to locate their projects to maximize emission reductions, provide more accurate financial analysis of power plants and determine where renewable energy is cheaper than fossil power.

What’s more – and perhaps more importantly – WattTime intends to make all its information open to the public, which could use the data to not only identify the worst polluters and pressure them to clean up their act, but also hold them accountable. Offenders won’t be able to make cosmetic promises of emissions reduction efforts and then fudge the numbers later – WattTime’s satellite will be able to verify when power plants manage to successfully reduce emissions.

In theory, at least. The key obstacle WattTime’s project faces is convincing everyone in that particular ecosystem (power plants, energy companies, lobbyists, regulators, governments, the public, etc) that the resulting data is accurate and trustworthy.

Which it might well be. But frankly, anyone who is gaming the current system will likely attempt to game this one – and the simplest way to do that is to undermine trust in the data. And given that climate change is a highly politicized issue, its not hard to imagine such players getting plenty of assistance from politicians and their corresponding media pundits doing their utmost to suggest that WattTime’s AI isn’t crunching the data correctly – or is even biased against power companies.

Which is no reason not to implement such a scheme, of course. But this is the world we live in right now, so while WattTime’s plan is a cool idea, I wouldn’t underestimate the ingenuity of human beings to undermine it with good old-fashioned cunning and guile.

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