In this time of uncertainty, one of the few things Stephane Germain knows for sure is that when the COVID-19 crisis subsides, the world will still need to fight climate change. So, with some adjustments, his satellite monitoring company GHGSat Inc. is moving ahead with its ambitious plan to use space-age technology in the battle against global warming.
In 2016, GHGSat launched the world’s first high-resolution satellite, called “Claire,” which is capable of measuring greenhouse gases (GHGs) from any industrial facility, anywhere.
“We use our own satellites to monitor air emissions around the world,” says Mr. Germain, founder and chief executive officer of GHGSat, which has about 50 employees at its headquarters in Montreal as well as an office in Calgary.
GHGSat’s big decision was to develop technology, on an ambitious timetable, that can deliver data and images it collects via satellite. Mr. Germain says the product is 100 times more precise than other technology, at one 100th of the cost of its competitors'.
“Nobody thought we could do it. But then we launched our demonstration satellite … and we’ve been proving that we can,” Mr. Germain says.
His motivation was a need for industry to measure its emissions in a more precise way. Right now, different facilities develop estimates using various measures, which leads to inconsistent reporting.
“That’s a problem because unless industries and governments actually know how much greenhouse gas is coming out, it’s hard to know whether the world is doing enough to curb the emissions,” he says.
The COVID-19 crisis forced the company to postpone a scheduled satellite launch which, in turn, pushes back the data-gathering. But Mr. Germain says GHGSat is ready to resume its aggressive program when the public-health crisis subsides.
Meantime, employees continue to work from home as part of the cross-country quarantine.
“We are fortunate that our team is healthy and has transitioned admirably well to working from home,” Mr. Germain says. “We have highly qualified people working hard to bring new technology to the fight against climate change, so we are keeping everyone fully employed during the crisis.”
The company’s original target for reporting a significant milestone in its effort to gather more accurate emissions data was November, 2020, when the United Nations is scheduled to hold its next major climate conference, known as COP26. Meeting that goal depends in large part on whether the conference is rescheduled.
Another challenge was the satellite launch from French Guiana, which was put on hold 10 days before its planned date of March 23.
“Contract revenues and other business milestones tied to that launch are now also delayed,” Mr. Germain says. “We already had provisions in place for a launch delay, so we will weather the storm.”
Customers and suppliers are resilient and patient, too, Mr. Germain says. Even after the COVID-19 crisis is over, he says industries and governments will still need to monitor emissions more accurately 2 at competitive prices – if the world is to make progress against climate change.
Mr. Germain says the company has attracted interest from the energy, mining, agricultural and waste-management sectors, all looking to reduce their emissions.
“The issue of air and greenhouse emissions has gone from being an economic argument to one of social responsibility,” he says. “The greatest drivers are now shareholders and directors of companies that we deal with. They are telling the operators that they have to get their emissions under control.”
Before much of the world went into quarantine, one of the challenges GHGSat faced was governments’ varied and changing emission regulations. In Canada, the federal government and some provinces have a carbon tax (Alberta’s covers large industrial emitters). Quebec has a cap-and-trade program. Ontario abandoned its cap-and-trade plan and has joined several provinces in challenging the federal program in court.
“We started planning at a time when the issue was not as political as it is now,” Mr. Germain says.
Still, he’s confident, after talking to potential customers, that GHGSat’s ambitious targets are realistic given their technology is relatively inexpensive and makes monitoring more efficient. He says the company has developed miniaturized emission-measurement spectrometers, which are able to fit on smaller satellites.
“The classic satellites being launched today … are the size of school buses. We think we can do this with a satellite that’s the size of a microwave oven,” Mr. Germain says.
Jan Gorski, a senior analyst with the Pembina Institute, a Calgary-based environmental think tank, says GHGSat is among a growing number of technology companies working to help reduce emissions.
“Their work and their goals are important because, right now, we don’t have an accurate sense of where all the emissions come from,” Mr. Gorski says. “You can’t mitigate greenhouse gases such as methane until you know where the emissions are coming from.”
Advances in satellite technology are also making it easier to understand how to deal with greenhouse gases, Mr. Gorski says.
“The technology is now getting to the point where it can see important emission ‘leaks’ that companies can fix; before, they would have to drive around with a camera to look for those spots,” he says.
Mr. Gorski also likes to see that a Canadian company is working on such an ambitious scale. “It’s great to see local leadership on this,” he says.
Mr. Germain says his company’s next step is to bring all the emissions it monitors into a global view and map them by company, industry and jurisdiction.
“We proved already in 2016 that a satellite could monitor emissions more effectively than ground-based monitoring, now we keep proving that we can do it better,” Mr. Germain says. “We think that will change the way people see the problem of greenhouse gases and what the world can do about it.”