From Satellite to Solar Walls: A Look at GEO Energy

One of NASA’s earth observation satellites – CALIPSO. Credit: NASA.

One of NASA’s earth observation satellites – CALIPSO. Credit: NASA.

Hundreds of kilometers above the earth’s surface, satellites orbit overhead, their cameras and sensors trained back on the Earth. With the data from these Earth observation satellites scientists around the world measure temperature, cloud cover, topography, and dozens of other variables. Aside from these scientists, few people on the ground give much thought to the satellites passing overhead.

Down on the Earth’s surface and certainly not visible from space, children in northern Canada exercise in a gym heated with the help of a solar wall, women in Africa fill containers with potable water from a solar-powered well, and a farmer in Minnesota looks up at the whirling blades of a new wind turbine in his corn field. At first glance the connections are not easy to see, but what links the satellites far above the Earth and these people on the ground is the work of the Group on Earth Observation (GEO)’s Energy Community of Practice.

Made up of organizations, NGOs and governmental agencies spanning 79 countries, Geneva-based GEO is a voluntary partnership to develop the Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS). By coordinating the use of Earth observation systems, GEO seeks to address nine societal benefit areas, just one of which is energy. For some of the areas, such as weather or disasters, the value of Earth observations is readily apparent – think predicting hurricanes or tracking forest fires. For energy, however, the applications are not always as obvious.

“I think that’s a real challenge for the energy societal benefit area,” said Richard Eckman, senior research scientist at NASA’s Langley Research Center, speaking of the difficulty of getting end users to see the utility of Earth observations for their work.

A focus of GEO is integrating different types of data, such as that from satellites, cloud statistics, digital terrain models, and historical data, in order to look at change over time, particularly with climate change, said Prof. Ellsworth LeDrew of the University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, who chairs the Energy Community of Practice for GEO. Eckman’s work at NASA is just one example among many spanning universities and government agencies all around the world.

As a “total introvert who used to sit in a cubicle, and be at a computer all day doing modeling, Eckman recalled in an interview that he didn’t have much interaction with the end-users of his work. That changed when he was asked to manage the energy applications of NASA’s research. In his new job, rather than making a model showing solar radiation levels over Africa for example, he focused on who might use that information and how to deliver it to them.

The end-user might be a power company, a renewable energy entrepreneur, a public transportation planner, or someone in the U.S. Department of Energy. At an end-user conference, Eckman recalled there was a particular interest expressed in receiving climate change forecasts to understand extreme weather events. He stresses the importance of communication between researchers and these groups, since end-users may not be aware of how Earth observation data could help them, and researchers need to know the type and format of data that will be most useful. A power company or architect will not be interested so much in raw data, as in specific information presented in the units they normally use, Eckman explained. Under LeDrew’s leadership, Eckman said, the GEO Energy Community of Practice has been “very active in developing a stakeholders’ network of commercial end-users and nonprofit end-users.”

One of the ways NASA satellite data is reaching these end-users is via RETScreen International, an award-winning program of Natural Resources Canada.

Solar wall under construction at Weledeh Catholic School in Yellowknife, Canada.

Solar wall under construction at Weledeh Catholic School in Yellowknife, Canada.

“RETScreen is a series of powerful databases that tell decision makers how much energy is produced by a wind turbine, a solar panel, a more efficient gas burner, or a small capacity hydro-plant. And it can also provide what those systems will cost,” said Greg Leng, director of RETScreen, in a promotional video on their website.

The free downloadable software is available in 35 different languages and keeps adding more. According to their latest estimates of user growth, nearly 200,000 people in 222 countries use the software. The organization offers workshops worldwide to train users, as well as webcasts for those unable to attend the workshops.

The partnership with NASA is essential to reaching all of these places around the world because NASA’s satellite data fills in where local on-the-ground data is unavailable, something common in rural and less developed areas. Increasing involvement in developing countries is a goal of the Energy Community of Practice, LeDrew said in an interview.

Most of RETScreen’s interactions are with engineering firms and architects, but in some of the earlier projects they worked directly with people on the ground, said Leng in an interview with Earthzine. In Yellowknife, a city of 20,000 and the capital of Canada’s Northwest Territories, Leng worked with a local school board to build a solar wall on a new gymnasium for Weledeh Catholic School. Schools are big energy users and the RETScreen software helped the board see that the solar heating wall would save energy and money in the long run. The students were invested in the project, too. There’s a high interest in sustainable development in this rural area where people are more connected to the land, Leng said. The students took pride in “greening” their school, so much so that students at the private Protestant school staged a walk-out demanding their school get a solar wall as well. A few years later another solar wall was installed at the second school.

For the most part though, the software engineers at RETScreen and research scientists at NASA never get to see the end products of their work. Still, they know they are making an impact. According to the 1996-2012 RETScreen impact report, their work is already keeping over 7 megatons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere every year, and their end-users have saved over $4 billion. Leng finds it gratifying to see the pictures people send him of projects that used RETScreen’s software. The quality of life improvements can be huge, he notes, for people who previously had no source of hot water or who no longer have to breathe in pollution from kerosene lamps to see at night.

Opening Ceremony of solar wall at Weledeh Catholic School in Yellowknife, Canada. The oil barrels in the back represent the amount of oil the solar air heating system saves each year.

Opening Ceremony of solar wall at Weledeh Catholic School in Yellowknife, Canada. The oil barrels in the back represent the amount of oil the solar air heating system saves each year.

Aside from the environmental and humanitarian impacts, some of those working in renewable energy development simply find the technology “cool.” According to CEO Mark Ahlstrom, it was a bunch of former “supercomputer guys” that started WindLogics, Inc. By combining Earth observation data from the World Meteorological Organization with historical data, they create three-dimensional models to help investors and developers decide where and how to build new wind farms. They can simulate what would have happened if a wind farm had been there for the past thirty years, Ahlstrom explained, and they can also predict for an investor what would be the worst year out of 100. WindLogics has evaluated and managed data for hundreds of wind energy sites throughout the United States and the world.

Besides siting renewable energy projects, many other energy applications exist for current satellite data. Researchers from Battelle Memorial Institute and Eckman outlined these potential applications in a 2008 paper published in the IEEE Journal of Selected Topics in Applied Earth Observations and Remote Sensing. They include load forecasting and the prediction of changes in energy usage due to climate change.

Since electricity is not stored well it is important to forecast the demand (or “load) needed at any given time and to balance this with generation. When renewable energies are added to the grid this becomes more complicated since the production will vary with the speed of the wind or amount of cloud cover.

“The intermittency of renewables like solar and wind make it even harder for the utilities to plan and prepare to maintain adequate supply on a given day … if it’s cloudy or if the wind is not blowing strongly, the utility needs to bring online another source of power quickly,” said Eckman in an email message. Satellite data may be able to help predict more accurately both the electricity demand and the renewable energy output, as well as how both of these could be predicted to shift with climate change. The potential savings of more accurate load forecasting are huge. Every one degree Celsius improvement could save $59 million per year, according to the journal article.

While the global recession may be slowing down large scale investments, Eckman is excited about the future of energy applications.

“I think it has a lot to do with our new administration, its interest in energy and climate,” he said. “I’m seeing that within the US GEO we’re suddenly seeing a really significant upsurge of interest in how we can be much more engaged in the energy societal benefit area from the standpoint of Earth observations.”

Multiple steps typically separate the collection of satellite data from the on-the-ground benefits to people’s lives. The Energy Community of Practice in GEO is working to ensure that those steps keep connecting though. Although the satellite’s distance from the surface renders individuals on the ground invisible, it allows for a broader perspective – a view of the whole Earth.