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Satellite Observations in Support of Climate Challenges
Counting Carbon
The Big Thaw
Sea Level Rise
Water Security
Land Surface Change
Energy Resource Management

Energy underpins all aspects of countries’ economic and social development policy. It is an input required by every segment of economy and society, whether in developed or developing countries.

The energy sector covers a wide range of activities, such as oil and gas exploration, extraction and production, transportation, electricity generation, transport and distribution. The optimal management of this diverse, global, trillion dollar industry – which includes the non-renewable resources of oil and gas as well as renewable resources such as solar, wind, biomass and hydropower generation – is a critical concern to all nations.

Energy resource management decisions are the basis for economic growth, ecologically responsible use of resources and human health and security. According to the International Energy Agency, worldwide energy demand over the next thirty years is expected to double, with the bulk of this increase occurring in large, rapidly developing countries, such as India and China. By 2030, global energy demand is expected to exceed supply by 20%. At the same time, existing reserves of traditional fuels from fossil sources will diminish and new reserves will be more difficult to find and exploit commercially. Alongside increased environmental awareness of the global warming effects of use of fossil fuels, renewable energy sources – which are themselves sensitive to weather and climate phenomena – are increasingly being deployed.

Major issues for the energy industry include fuel supply, type, and sustainability, as well as power efficiency, reliability, security, safety and cost effectiveness. Nations need reliable and timely information in order to manage the risks associated with uncertainty in supply, demand, and market dynamics. This requires sound management practices and strategies by industry and government.

The Role of Earth Observation Satellites
The energy industry is already an important user of information from Earth observation satellites:

— weather data are useful in estimations of both the supply and demand for electricity;

— satellites play an important role in support of exploration, extraction and safe transportation of the world’s oil and gas reserves, particularly since they are now being sought in increasingly remote and hostile areas of the planet;

— satellites are playing an increasing role in providing global resource maps for renewable energy project planning and sustainable building design;

— potential disruption of the power grid by solar storms can be predicted using satellites that monitor the near-Earth environment in conjunction with atmospheric models.

Some examples of the roles for satellite Earth observations in the global energy sector are outlined below.

Forecasting the Demand for Electricity
The electrical grid ‘blackouts’ in the northern USA and Canada in August 2003 were an extreme example of the effects of miscalculating the demand for electricity. The outage affected some 50 million people and losses were estimated at between $5.8bn and $11.8bn. It occurred during summer peak energy use periods when air conditioning demand was in full force, demonstrating the important influence of environmental conditions on society’s daily demand for electricity.

The power industry relies heavily on projected demand requirements for the buying, selling and trading of electricity. Weather information is a necessary component of the industry’s supply forecasting process. Companies make or purchase forecasts of electricity demand, ranging from a few hours ahead to many days ahead. Energy managers base operational decisions upon them.

Operational meteorological satellites play an important role in the generation of the short-term and seasonal weather forecast products that are employed in the power industry. Everyday forecasts of temperature, humidity, precipitation and wind speed, and warnings of severe weather events such as hurricanes, droughts and heat waves, all have value in the prediction of how many electrical appliances each of us will use in the course of a typical day. Getting the forecast wrong means generating either too much or too little energy, and profits are lost in either case. Energy sector meteorologists have suggested that, in the USA, imperfect forecasts can have an impact on the electricity generation industry by as much as US$1 million per degree fahrenheit per day.
Wednesday 12 March 2008 12UTC ©ECMWF Forecast t+072 VT: Saturday 15 March 2008 12UTC Surface: Mean sea level pressure/ 850-hPa wind speed
Weather forecasts are vital for forecasting electricity demand
Weather forecasting improvements resulting from the introduction of new, advanced satellites are, therefore, of significant value to that industry. It has been estimated that the economic benefit to the U.S. supply industry resulting from improvements included in the GOES-R mission alone would amount to US$451 million in 2015. This benefit would be realised in the form of savings, primarily from improved load forecasts and better real-time weather information.

Direct observation of environmental conditions can also play an important role in ensuring electricity supply.
Utilities and energy trading companies often use satellite imagery data on snow accumulation to predict snow melt and the resultant energy potential of hydroelectric dams. Longer term supply and infrastructure planning also depend on predictions of urban growth. Wide field-of-view sensors such as those on Landsat, MODIS and SPOT, have been used specifically for this purpose. Potential regional impacts of climate change are an increasing concern to the industry and ‘extreme’ weather forecasts are being used as a guide for planning purposes.
SSE 22 - Year Average monthly Mean of All-Sky Surface Solar Insolation from 1983-07 to 2005-06
Surface solar energy map.

Alternative Energy Sources
In recent years, Earth observations have contributed to the optimisation of renewable energy systems for power production, and to the provision of information for optimal integration of traditional and renewable energy supply systems into electric power grids.

Renewable energy sources, such as solar, wind and wave power, offer environmentally-friendly alternatives to fossil fuels, but are particularly sensitive to environmental conditions. Since these energy sources are intermittent, their availability depends largely on local climate and weather.

Local climate data on cloud cover, solar irradiance, and wind/wave speed and direction – combined with other environmental parameters such as land elevation and land cover models – are vital elements in developing a strategy for the location and operation of renewable energy facilities.

The NASA-funded Surface meteorology and Solar Energy (SSE) dataset, a 23-year dataset of temperatures, wind, and solar radiation derived from satellite observations and model analyses, supports the preliminary design of buildings, renewable energy technologies, and agrotechnology. These historical data sets provide estimates of variability on seasonal and inter-annual timescales, as well as long-term (decadal) trends.

Geostationary satellites have been used experimentally as a tool in resource assessment for solar energy for a number of years. The Envisolar project, financed by the European Space Agency, aims to exploit Meteosat data to support the solar energy community in its efforts to increase the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of its systems and thereby improve their viability. The project aims to provide high spatial and temporal solar irradiance data as well as information on the distributions of sunlight by angle of incidence and spectral band.

EUMETSAT’s Satellite Application Facility on Climate Monitoring (CM-SAF) is serving the solar energy community in providing the monthly mean solar radiation conditions at the surface on an operational basis.

A joint NASA-Ecole des Mines de Paris project to provide a compound, web-based solar energy data service suitable for use in developing countries was made available in 2007 as a GEO early demonstration project. The ‘SoDA’ project integrates the European Helioclim database and the NASA Surface meteorology and Solar Energy (SSE) dataset, based on location of interest.

Coastal wind mapping using radar satellites
SAR, scatterometer, and altimeter data from satellites are also used to support the mapping of wind energy in offshore and near-coastal regions to identify potential wind turbine sites. An 8-year climatology of ocean winds derived from measurements made by the NASA QuikSCAT scatterometer has recently been made available. This climatology is currently being expanded using observations by EUMETSAT’s ASCAT. ESA’s ERS-2 SAR high resolution ocean surface wave observations have been used by researchers in Denmark to provide offshore wind resource assessments. EUMETSAT’s Ocean and Sea Ice Satellite Application Facility (OSI-SAF) generates surface wind products in near real-time, using measurements from the scatterometers QuikSCAT and ASCAT.

Renewable Energy Resource Management
Effective uptake of satellite measurements of quantities relevant to the energy sector requires understanding the needs of end-user policy makers and management decision makers. This includes supplying the data in readily usable formats and units. In the case of NASA’s SSE dataset, partnerships with Natural Resources Canada’s RETScreen clean energy project analysis tool and the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s (NREL) HOMER micropower optimisation tool have led to their enhanced ability to inform decision making. RETScreen, used for renewable energy and energy efficiency project feasibility studies by over 140,000 users worldwide, has been translated into 26 languages. It gives users the choice of using surface measurements or, where unavailable, the NASA satellite-derived climatological data inputs. HOMER, a tool used for both stand-alone and distributed generation applications, makes similar use of NASA spaceborne-derived datasets. HOMER is used extensively worldwide for determining the optimal mix of power technologies for meeting specified load conditions at specified locations. In both instances, SSE data have been tailored to the needs of the decision support system, enabling the data to be ingested by the tool and made available in a transparent manner to the end user.

An International Energy Agency (IEA) Solar Heating and Cooling Programme task, entitled ‘Solar Resource Knowledge Management’, will provide the solar energy industry, the electric utility sector, governments, and renewable energy organisations with the most suitable and accurate information of the solar radiation field at the Earth’s surface. This ranges from historic data sets to precise current products, and towards forecasts and scenarios as well as future availability of solar resources in a changing climate. Led by the NREL, with participation from ESA, DLR, NASA and other entities, this 5-year task contributes to current GEO energy work plan goals. Industry and professional societies define standards for energy efficient building design. NASA SSE products are currently being evaluated by the American Institute of Architects and the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE). These sample datasets address unmet needs for clear-sky solar flux information for the building design community. In the case of ASHRAE, these data are provided in a specialised format employing US Department of Energy climate zones, which are in general use by these professionals for defining building energy codes.

Oil and Gas
Earth observation imagery is used extensively by exploration companies in support of their search for new oil and gas reserves – both on land and at sea. Instruments such as ASTER on NASA’s Terra satellite are specifically designed to support geologists gathering information on remote and poorly mapped regions of the world and to supply information on the geological and tectonic features – which the trained interpreter can exploit, in association with seismic data, to optimise exploration efforts.
Satellite imagery is routinely used in exploration of offshore oil basins - including through oil 'seep' detection

Energy Resource Management
Satellite data are used for prospecting for undersea hydrocarbon deposits. Research by oil companies in the 1990s demonstrated that over 75% of the world’s oil-bearing basins contain surface seeps – which form a thin slick on the sea surface above, visibly changing the water’s reflective qualities. Searches for these naturally occurring oil slicks can be undertaken using boats and aircraft, but these are time-consuming and costly, they may require access rights, and alert competitors to potential resources.


Synthetic Aperture Radar satellites offer the oil industry an effective, low-cost technique for reducing source risk in high-cost exploration environments such as the new deep frontier basins. This is due to their ability to image surface oil seeps remotely with wide swath coverage (typically 100–200 km wide scenes) and at low cost. Moreover, satellite data do not compromise national sovereignty and can provide multi-temporal coverage data over any area of the globe. Time-series data can provide the location for follow-up surface sampling from which key geochemical information on the oil reservoirs can be obtained ahead of drilling.

Oil and gas drilling increasingly takes place on the open seas – operations which are particularly vulnerable to severe storms. This vulnerability was apparent in the 2004 hurricane season when oil output from platforms in the Gulf of Mexico, the largest domestic source of oil for the USA, was reduced by about 25–30% of its usual daily rate. Oil prices increased sharply as a result of fears of supply security. Marine forecasts are essential in the offshore drilling business and for oil pipeline management, providing information on sea-state conditions, winds, waves, surface temperature and extreme events, such as severe storms and hurricanes. Satellite observations are often the only source of such information out at sea, so they are invaluable in managing offshore operations and, therefore, in ensuring security of oil supply.

The same benefits are enjoyed by ocean-going supertankers that transport much of the world’s oil and gas supplies. Active microwave sensors on satellites such as MetOp and QuikSCAT provide homogeneous, global measurements of sea surface winds and wave height which are used by meteorologists in their marine forecast models. These models are used in support of offshore operations and for ship route optimisation. The same instruments have helped improve forecasts of the landfall time and location of hurricanes. These can now typically be predicted to within 400 km, and up to 2–3 days in advance. The goals of NASA’s Earth Science Enterprise call for improving this capability to within 100 km by 2010.

Environmental and climate impacts of global fossil fuel use can be expected to come under increasing scrutiny in the 21st century, as nations explore more sustainable energy policies and try to limit greenhouse gas emissions. The role of Earth observation satellites in this domain is the subject of other case studies in this document.

Satellite observations of weather formations, sea surface winds and wave heights are essential for safe offshore opperations.

Future Advances
Increasing fuel prices and sensitivity to national fossil fuel emissions will ensure ever-increasing importance of the efficiency of our power generation industries. In the medium term, progress and improvement of energy resource management activities using satellite Earth observations will be largely related to the improvement of short- to medium-term (up to 8–10 days) weather predictions, as well as progress in seasonal to inter-annual climate forecasts. Application of current Earth observations to alternative energy resource assessment will continue to be exploited as deployment of these technologies increases.

The new generation of satellites may extend the range of deterministic forecasts to 15 days. Predictions of high-impact weather will also see improvement – up to 5 days ahead for flash floods, storms and blizzards, 10 days for ‘plain’ floods, and 15 days or beyond for droughts, heat waves and severe cold spells. The GOSAT (launched 2009, JAXA) and forthcoming (2012) Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (NASA) missions are and will contribute to scientific studies related to the global carbon cycle.

Future operational weather satellite systems will be extended to provide daily global analyses of greenhouse gases, and monthly estimates of the sources and sinks of CO2.

Further Information
International Energy Agency:
The Kyoto Protocol:
European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts:
Wind and wave forecasts for offshore operations and ship routing:
Satellites for oil and mineral exploration:
ESA Envisolar project:
EUMETSAT Satellite Application Facility on Climate Monitoring:
EUMETSAT Satellite Application Facility on Ocean and Sea Ice:
NASA Surface Meteorology & Solar Energy (SSE) dataset:
Solar Data (SoDa) web service:
Group on Earth Observations (GEO) Energy Community of Practice:
Scatterometer Climatology of Ocean Winds:
Renewable Energy project analysis tools:




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