Montreal-based GHGSat Inc. will launch the world’s first commercial carbon dioxide (CO2) monitoring satellite in Q4 this year to more precisely measure the emissions of industrial polluters.
The GHGSat-C10, which is currently being built, will use the same patented sensor technology the company utilizes for its methane-sensing satellites.
Claire, its demonstrator satellite, was launched in 2016 to monitor both CO2 and methane. GHGSat shifted its focus to methane observation because the market was developing much faster and because it is easier to measure, said Jean-Francois Gauthier, GHGSat’s vice-president of measurements and strategic initiatives.
But as GHGSat liaised with different parties and industries, it found "there's been interest in CO2 all along. CO2 is obviously the largest, the most abundant greenhouse gas and most important greenhouse gas.”
Founded in 2011, GHGSat has grown to over 100 employees and raised US$85 million in funding from investors including Investissement Quebec, the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative, Schlumberger, Business Development Bank Canada, Space Angels and Sustainable Development Technology Canada.
Some of its early customers included Hydro Quebec, Manitoba Hydro and Suncor Energy. In 2021, it began monitoring six offshore facilities operated by Chevron Corp., Royal Dutch Shell plc and TotalEnergies SE.
GHGSat’s CO2 satellite
According to the company, there are many public satellites that can detect CO2 – including Japan’s GOSATS 1 and 2, OCO-2 from the U.S. and China’s TanSat – but none have GHGSat-C10’s high sensitivity and single-site attribution at the 25-metre scale.
“It's not like with a satellite like that, we can aim to monitor CO2 from a car, for example. We'd be looking at large industrial facilities: power plants, cement factories, aluminum smelters, steel plants, these big industrial facilities that have considerable CO2 emissions,” Gauthier said.
Each gas absorbs light on a different part of the electromagnetic spectrum, so by tuning it to the appropriate frequency the satellite can monitor a specific emission.
Using Claire as the foundation for development, GHGSat’s new satellites take approximately two years to build. The cost is similar to developing a methane-detecting device.
Based on the performance of its sensor technology and previous knowledge of CO2 in the atmosphere, Gauthier predicts the new satellite will be able to detect about one megatonne of CO2 per year. Like its other satellites, the data will be uploaded to SPECTRA, the company’s emissions management platform for customers.
While details on the future launch were not disclosed, Gauthier compared the process to “when you want to catch a bus that goes to the right destination.” GHGSat needs to find the right rocket going to the right orbit.
He credits SpaceX’s deployment of its Starlink satellites and the frequency of their launches. In May 2022, three of GHGSat's satellites were launched on a SpaceX Falcon9 rocket.
Once in orbit, data from the satellite will be utilized for existing customers and to attract new ones.
CO2, Gauthier said, doesn't have an inherent value like methane. Methane is the main component of natural gas, so it can generate revenue through sales or generating electricity. CO2 is "more of a waste than anything else," he said.
“So, many of our customers that have an interest in methane (are) also interested in CO2 inherently, because a lot of them have to report on their whole footprint and their entire greenhouse gas inventory. So that's true of commercial customers. That's true of government customers, as well,” he said.
“It’s about having all the pieces of that puzzle, so to speak.”
GHGSat’s future monitoring
GHGSat’s six orbiting satellites have surveyed over a million square kilometres in 47 countries. By the end of 2023, it plans to have 10 satellites in orbit, beginning with three methane-focused launches this spring.
GHGSat is also taking steps to monitor and compensate for its own emissions.
In January, GHGSat was certified carbon neutral by Granby, Que.-based LCL Environnement. The process calculated direct and indirect emissions including commercial activities such as business travel, employee commuting, GHGSat airborne monitoring services and satellite launches.
To help with offsets, for example from its rocket launches, the company enlisted Vancouver-based Ostrom Climate Solutions.
The launch of its CO2 satellite does not mean the company will shifting focus from one gas to the other. Instead the goal is to be a worldwide expert in space-based satellite monitoring for all greenhouse gases.
In 2022, Gauthier stated GHGSat measured emissions which are equivalent to 45 million cars on the road for one year. In 2021, the company measured 143 megatonnes of CO2 equivalent – 76 per cent of which it states were undetectable by public satellites.
“At this stage, it's about impact. The data is here, so the potential for reductions is here. Now it's time to really facilitate action. I always get this question in these kinds of discussions. 'Where is the technology going? Where would they be in five years?' That’s an interesting discussion, but it's not about that anymore. That technology is here,” Gauthier said.
“That's not just GHGSat, by the way. There are a lot of really compelling technologies that have emerged to detect gases.”