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Monitoring greenhouse gases from space

LOOKNorth accelerates market opportunities for Montreal firm

GHGSat satellite liftoff, June 2016
Photo credit: GHGSat

Managing carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases (GHG) is not just good for the environment. It’s also a way for business to save money, cut risks, and create new business opportunities, particularly as more jurisdictions implement carbon pricing. Unfortunately, current technologies leave much be desired when it comes to accuracy.

For example, Canada’s oil sands industry has stated publicly that their emissions estimates for tailings ponds and mines could be off by more than 50% using current methods and measurements. Many companies around the world continue to use antiquated methods for tracking emissions which could result in paying higher carbon costs than is necessary.

That challenge is now being addressed by GHGSat Inc., which has designed the world’s first satellite, called Claire, for measuring GHG and air quality gas emissions from any industrial site in the world. The Montreal-based remote sensing company is preparing to launch its first two commercial microsatellites in late 2018 and early 2019. The launch follows the successful validation of its demonstration satellite in 2016 which showed that GHG emissions from point sources such as power plants and industrial sites can be accurately and constantly measured from space, and for a fraction of the cost of comparable technologies.

“There are hundreds of thousands of facilities around the world that have emissions that are estimated or measured with significant uncertainties, and that’s a financial risk they would rather not deal with,” says GHGSat’s president Stéphane Germain.

“They would rather have better information about their emissions so they can control and reduce their emissions. It’s the reason our customers are interested in our service.”

But before that first satellite could launch, and before costly investments in ground station infrastructure were made, GHGSat needed to prove they had solid technical data to back up their claims.

The firm partnered with LOOKNorth – home to some of the country’s top remote sensing experts – on a three-year project to test and validate an innovative light sensor capable of measuring trace gases at individual industrial sites around the globe with high precision and high spatial resolution. The tests monitored emissions at one Alberta oil sands site and two hydroelectric facilities being built in Canada’s North.

“Before you put a sensor up in the air you have to de-risk it,” says Paul Adlakha, managing director of the LOOKNorth Centre of Excellence for Commercialization and Research.

“LOOKNorth’s financial, technical and project management support has been invaluable in demonstrating to potential customers around the world that our technology does what we say can it can do,” says Germain. “We are also working with both Boeing and LOOKNorth to install extra ground stations to receive and process satellite data, which increases our ability to generate revenue by serving even more sites and more customers.”

LOOKNorth’s host institution, C-CORE in St. John’s, NL, is designing and building the ground stations to receive and process data from a variety of small satellites. The first two stations will be deployed in Inuvik, NWT and St. John’s and the first data will be received from GHGSat’s CLAIRE. The infrastructure developed under this project will provide geospatial analytical tools, an enhanced marketing platform and preferred access to satellite data for LOOKNorth’s network of over 60 Canadian businesses, universities and research centres.

At the same time, Adlakha’s team is exploring how combining GHGSat’s data with LOOKNorth’s knowledge of resource sector needs can create even more value-added commercial products. “For example, how can you correlate the greenhouse gas emissions from infrastructure with the carbon sinks, like forests? How can you build a model that shows the two of them in balance, and is that balance being disrupted? That’s valuable information for companies.”

Monitoring oil sands emissions

The early demonstrations with LOOKNorth also led to a new project between GHGSat and four members of Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance, led by Imperial Oil. As an associate member of COSIA, LOOKNorth helps to facilitate partnerships between its member companies and oil sands operators and provide expert advice on promising new remote sensing technologies. GHGSat’s satellite was used to measure fugitive emissions – uncontrolled releases of gases – from two tailings ponds and one mine.

“Our satellite measurements, combined with our data processing and analytics, offer the ability to estimate the emissions from the total pond and to do that more precisely and at much lower costs than existing methods,” says Germain. “Our service also has health and safety benefits. With current methods you need a consultant on site taking measurements directly in the ponds. With our service, you can measure the entire emission from the pond remotely from space, and we can do it faster and more frequently.”

GHGSat’s work with LOOKNorth was an important step towards commercializing GHGSat’s services to a wide range of customers, including oil and gas, power generation, coal mining, agriculture and landfills. The company’s vision is to be the global standard for emissions monitoring. Germain has suggested that the company could have a constellation of 20 satellites in space within a decade, which would allow for daily monitoring.

The market potential is significant: the global carbon market is estimated to grow from $4.74 billion USD in 2015 to $8.12 billion USD by 2021, according to the market research firm This link will take you to another Web site MarketsandMarkets.