Scientists in California have begun setting up a statewide network of monitors to track California’s greenhouse gas emissions. Similar equipment has been in place for years as part of a continental network established by the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). But officials at the California Air Resources Board (CARB) say this new system will be the first of its kind.
“The unique thing about this is that we’re actually looking at the local emissions, rather than the global average, says Jorn Herner, who heads the Greenhouse Gas Technology & Field Testing Section of CARB’s research arm. “Nobody has done that before.”
Scientists have been systematically tracking atmospheric CO2 on a broad scale since 1958. California’s network of GHG sniffers will be capable of tracking CO2, nitrous oxides and other known greenhouse gases, and will initially focus on methane.
But CARB officials say the network is not part of a “Big Brother” strategy for emissions compliance. “This is initially a research project,” said Herner. He says the new network will provide a “second data point” to augment the state’s current method of estimating GHG emissions. Currently California’s current climate law, AB-32, relies on a “bottom-up” system of estimating emissions from individual sources, then adding them up to arrive at total emissions for the state.
“The modeling won’t tell you each individual source but what you’d be able to do is develop a gridded inventory. So you’ll be able to say in this square mile of land over here, it looks like emissions are much higher than in this square mile next to it.”
The Air Board has purchased seven “next-generation” analyzers from Picarro Instruments in Sunnyvale. Five will go to fixed locations, such as a tower on Mt. Wilson, above the Los Angeles Basin. The two others will be on “mobile platforms;” electric vehicles that can roam the state taking ground-level readings. The units cost about $50,000 apiece but Picarro executives say they are self-adjusting and require far less human intervention than previous models, which will ultimately make them more cost-effective.
Picarro’s CEO, Michael Woelk, says a nationwide network of 500-to-700 detectors could yield a comprehensive GHG map of the US with resolution down to ten kilometers (a little more than six miles).
If California regulators are successful at putting in place a statewide or regional cap-and-trade system for greenhouse gases, industrial emitters will have to pay fees for the carbon they pump into the air. Horn agrees that at that point, some kind of check on the current system of self-reporting will “probably” be needed, but, he says, “that’s not the goal of this monitoring network at this time.”
“The science is really young,” he explained. “We’re really just trying to find out the potential of what we can do with this network. How it’s used in the future is still up in the air.”
…so to speak.
This animation below shows the methane levels detected by a Picarro analyzer as it is driven from Livermore, CA, to Sacramento.