A pair of Earth-observing missions by NASA has enabled researchers to detect and track carbon dioxide emission changes from a single facility, using the world’s fifth-largest coal-fired power plant as a test case. A case study involving Europe’s largest coal-fired power plant shows space-based observations can be used to track carbon dioxide emissions and reductions at the source.
In the recent study, researchers used space-based measurements from NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) 2 and 3 missions to quantify the carbon dioxide discharged hundreds of miles below at Belchatow Power Station in Poland, the largest single emitter in Europe. Analyzing the plant’s emission plumes from several satellite overpasses between 2017 and 2022, they detected changes in carbon dioxide levels that were consistent with hourly fluctuations in electricity generation. The team was able to detect that temporary and permanent unit shutdowns for maintenance or decommissioning reduced the plant’s overall emissions.
The findings prove that space-based observations can be used to track CO2 emission changes at a local scale, the scientists said.
Launched in 2014, NASA’s OCO-2 satellite maps natural and human-made carbon dioxide emissions on scales ranging from regions to continents. The instrument samples the gas indirectly by measuring the intensity of sunlight reflected off Earth’s surface and absorbed by carbon dioxide in the column of air from the ground to the satellite. OCO-2’s spectrometers are tuned to detect the specific signature of CO2 gas.
Spare components from that mission were used to create OCO-3, an instrument that has flown on the International Space Station since 2019. OCO-3 was designed with a mapping mode that can make multiple sweeping observations as the space station passes over an area, allowing researchers to create detailed mini-maps from a city-scale area of interest.
Emissions from large facilities such as power plants and refineries account for about half of global carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels. Belchatow Power Station, in operation since 1988, is the largest lignite-fired power plant in the world, with a reported capacity of 5,102 megawatts. Lignite (brown coal) typically leads to higher emissions per megawatt generated than anthracite (hard coal). The Polish government has drafted plans to close the plant by the end of 2036.
Because of the mapping mode observations of OCO-3, NASA data could be used more extensively in quantifying CO2 point-source emissions in the future.