A nonprofit artificial intelligence firm called WattTime is going to use satellite imagery to precisely track the air pollution (including carbon emissions) coming out of every single power plant in the world, in real time. And it’s going to make the data public.
This is a very big deal. Poor monitoring and gaming of emissions data have made it difficult to enforce pollution restrictions on power plants. This system promises to effectively eliminate poor monitoring and gaming of emissions data.
And it won’t just be regulators and politicians who see this data; it will be the public too. When it comes to environmental enforcement, the public can be more terrifying and punitive than any regulator. If any citizen group in the world can go online and pull up a list of the dirtiest power plants in their area, it eliminates one of the great informational barriers to citizen action.
The plan is to use data from satellites that make theirs publicly available (like the European Union’s Copernicus network and the US Landsat network), as well as data from a few private companies that charge for their data (like Digital Globe). The data will come from a variety of sensors operating at different wavelengths, including thermal infrared that can detect heat.
The images will be processed by various algorithms to detect signs of emissions. 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.
Between visible smoke, heat, and NO2, WattTime will be able to derive exact, real-time emissions information, including information on carbon emissions, for every power plant in the world. (McCormick says the data may also be used to derive information about water pollutants like nitrates or mercury).
WattTime is partnering with Carbon Tracker, a think tank that’s done previous work with satellite imagery, using it for financial analysis of power plants (including a pioneering study showing that 42 percent of global coal power plants are operating at a loss), and the World Resources Institute, which operates the world’s most comprehensive Global Database of Power Plants.