Tracking methane down to the source
Beginning as a Quebec-based start-up in 2011, GHGSat is now an established player in the growing market for satellite monitoring of greenhouse gas emissions from the oil and gas industry. CEO and founder Stephane Germain tells Gas Pathways that what sets the company apart from others in the field is the unparalleled resolutions that its satellites achieve, enabling them to link emissions directly to individual sources.
Greenhouse gas monitoring from space is decades old, and was pioneered by national space agencies such as NASA and the European Space Agency. But those agencies focused on monitoring emissions only on a global scale, to inform climate change models. GHGSat has gone further, tracking emissions at much higher resolutions to help oil and gas operators identify emissions from individual facilities and measure them accurately.
“Greenhouse gas monitoring has been around for a long time. So the underlying science has been proven,” Germain says. “What we did was undertake several innovations. In order to serve customers’ needs, we use very high resolutions – metres instead of kilometres.”
The company’s primary focus is methane, a greenhouse gas far more potent than CO2 but with a much shorter atmospheric lifetime, meaning that action today will have a fast and considerable impact on the climate.
GHGSat’s technology is designed to find the smallest leaks possible, identifying individual plumes. And to minimise capital costs, it deploys its technology on very small satellites. Each satellite has a mass of less than 15 kg and is the size of a microwave oven.
“We can track emissions at a facility scale with the lowest detection threshold of any other satellite in the world today, and we can do so using a small satellite,” Germain says. “All three of those things combined is entirely unique, and really allows us to offer a good commercial service to industrial operators.”
Once GHGSat agrees with a customer on a set of facilities to monitor, it provides a subscription service whereby it delivers monitoring data to customers on typically a monthly basis to help them assess their emissions. GHGSat also offers derivative services, making use of data from other, public satellites, production databases and other sources to give operators a complete view of emissions trends in the areas they are operating.
After several years of discussions with potential customers and fundraising efforts, GHGSat launched a demonstration satellite, Claire, in 2016.
“It’s been quite a journey. There were a lot of skeptics back then,” Germain says. “But now we’re completely proven that our technology works, its completely de-risked.”
GHGSat went on to launch a second satellite, Iris, in September 2020, followed by a third, Hugo, in January 2021. The company used its experience with the demonstration satellite to make improvements to its technology. While Claire has a methane column density precision of 13% of background, Iris’ is only 1%. GHGSat also reduced the detection threshold from 1,000 kg/hour in 3m/s wind to 100 kg, and the spatial resolution from 50 m to 25 m, while increasing the swath width from 15 km to 20 km.
“Now we really are in a place where we can deliver methane monitoring services to oil and gas, power generation, waste management, coal mining – any industry that emits significant methane emissions, from facilities around the world,” Germain says.
But while GHGSat is eager to build up positions in various sectors, the oil and gas industry remains its “beachhead,” Germain says. Here its relationship with the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative (OGCI), a key investor in GHGSat, has proven invaluable, according to the CEO.
“The OGCI brought both the capital we needed to build our next satellites and direct access to many of the world’s largest operators. And that is priceless,” Germain says. “It’s a huge benefit for a small company that’s trying to break into a new market. Without that it would have been very challenging to get the breath of access and contracts we’ve gotten in the oil and gas industry.”
GHGSat started by working with some of the largest players in the field, but its aim now is to extend its services to mid-tier and small players as well.
The OGCI and other oil and gas players own roughly a third of GHGSat, while another third is owned by institutional investors and the rest by the founders. In July the company completed its Series B funding round, raising $45mn with the support of OGCI, as well as the Quebec government and Space Capital. Germain says he is happy with how the round went, noting the proceeds will be used to add more satellites to its constellation, develop the infrastructure to support their work and enhance its analytics offering to clients.
GHGSat plans to have 10 satellites in operation. It expects its next three to be launched in the summer of 2022, and has already placed orders for three more due to arrive a year later. The number will reach 10 by the end of 2023.
Germain acknowledges that satellite monitoring of greenhouse gas emissions has its limitations, and must be used with other monitoring methods such as aircraft, drones and hand-held cameras. Satellites have difficulty monitoring emissions offshore for example. They typically use shortwave infrared light, which is absorbed by the water rather than being reflected back to the satellites, preventing the measurement of emissions.
GHGSat is in process of overcoming this challenge, Germain says, pointing to a 12-month research and development project it launched last summer with Chevron, Shell and TotalEnergies on monitoring emissions at offshore oil and gas platforms. It is testing a new technology it has developed known as Glint Mode, where the satellite observes the site obliquely, in order to receive a sun glint off the surface of the water that enables emissions measurements to be made.
This article first appeared in Gas Pathways, a platform dedicated to technology and innovation in the natural gas industry. Click here for more information.