Satellite data can help track exact air pollution from power plants

Air pollution is responsible for five million early deaths and 147 million years of healthy life lost, every year, worldwide 

By DTE Staff
Last Updated: Wednesday 08 May 2019
Satellite data can help tracking exact air pollution from power plants. Photo: Getty Images

Power plants, responsible for much of global carbon emissions can now be tracked for the exact amount of air pollution — the single-largest environmental health risk — they cause. The big polluters will be effectively monitored, using satellite imagery, and the data made public, according to a recent report in the Vox. This will potentially help citizens, non-profits, and governments pressure emitters and curb emissions. 

WattTime, a non-profit artificial intelligence firm, is planning to use publicly available satellites data (such as those from the European Union’s Copernicus network and the United States' Landsat network, the Vox reported. The images will be processed by various algorithms to detect signs of emissions from a variety of sensors operating at different wavelengths, including thermal infrared that can detect heat.

While it has been demonstrated that visible smoke can help track pollution, the firm says it can also use infrared imaging to identify heat from smokestack plumes or cooling-water discharge. The company is also developing sensors that can directly track nitrogen dioxide (NO2) emissions, executive director Gavin McCormick at WattTime, was quoted as saying to the Vox.

The latest State of Global Air report has identified air pollution as the fifth-greatest global mortality risk. It causes five million early deaths and 147 million years of healthy life lost, every year, and the countries building the most power plants are experiencing the most air pollution.

The non-profit will deploy Automated Emissions Reduction (AER) — a programme that uses real-time grid data and machine learning to determine exactly when the grid is producing the cleanest electricity. It will track visible smoke, heat, and NO2 and derive exact, real-time emissions information, including information on carbon emissions, for every power plant in the world.

Further, according to McCormick, the new data would also help in identifying countries suspected of underreporting emissions.

“Now there will be a trusted, third-party source of verified information on every power plant; no more gaming the system by fiddling with local monitoring equipment or misreporting emissions. Transparent third-party verification will raise everyone’s confidence in the ability of regulators and negotiators to produce results,” the report said.

To defend themselves from public pressures emitters usually adopt pollution prevention and abatement measures. The real-time pollution data will enable AER to work anywhere in the world, without undue reliance on state or industry sources of data. The information, once made public can expose the big polluters and result in citizen activism and ultimately help reduce toxic emissions.

WattTime was selected through the Google AI Impact Challenge and is taking off with a $1.7 million grant Google.org, Google’s philanthropic wing. For the ambitious project, the AI firm is partnering with London-based not-for-profit think tank Carbon Tracker.

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