Two Earth-observing space missions have enabled researchers to detect and track carbon dioxide emission changes from a single facility, using one of the world’s largest coal-fired power plants as a test case.

In the study, researchers used space-based measurements from NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) 2 and 3 missions to quantify CO2 discharged at Bełchatów Power Station in Poland, one of the largest single emitters in Europe. 

Analyzing the plant’s emission plumes from several satellite passes between 2017 and 2022, the researchers said they detected changes in carbon dioxide levels consistent with hourly fluctuations in electricity generation. Temporary and permanent unit shutdowns (for maintenance or decommissioning) reduced the plant’s overall emissions, which the team also detected.

The researchers said their findings demonstrate that space-based observations can be used to track carbon dioxide emission changes at a local scale.

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.

This illustration shows NASA’s OCO-3 mounted on the underside of the International Space Station. The instrument, launched in 2019, was not originally designed to detect carbon dioxide emissions from individual facilities but scientists said it will be used for more point-source studies in the future.
 Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech 

Spare parts from that mission were used to build 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 maps from a city-scale area of interest.

Neither OCO instrument was originally designed specifically to detect emissions from individual facilities such as Bełchatów, so the recent findings were a “pleasant surprise,” said Abhishek Chatterjee, project scientist for the OCO-3 mission at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California. “We are learning that we can actually understand a lot more about anthropogenic emissions than what we had previously expected.”

Bełchatów Power Station, in operation since 1988, is the largest lignite-fired power plant in the world, with a reported capacity of 5,102 MW. 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.

Ray Nassar, a senior researcher at Environment and Climate Change Canada and the study’s lead author, said that most carbon dioxide emissions reports are created from estimates or data collected at the surface. Researchers account for the mass of fossil fuels bought and used, then calculate the expected emissions; they generally do not make actual atmospheric carbon dioxide measurements.

With the mapping mode observations of OCO-3, NASA data might be used more extensively in quantifying CO2 point-source emissions in the future. NASA recently said that mission operations would be extended for several more years aboard the space station, and the instrument will operate alongside another greenhouse gas observer aboard the space station, the Earth Surface Mineral Dust Source Investigation (EMIT).

The OCO-2 and OCO-3 projects are managed by JPL. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.

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