“Space-borne earth observations provide measurements globally, enabling decisions to be made where in-situ ground observations are sparse or unavailable,” said NASA scientist Richard Eckman. “One of the key struggles we’ve encountered is educating end-users about the utility of Earth observations. For a non-scientist, it may often come as a surprise that spaceborne measurments could be useful to their decision-making process.”

Eckman and colleague Paul Stackhouse Jr presented NASA’s latest developments in this field at the World Renewable Energy Congress (WREC X) in Glasgow this July.

“We have demonstrated the utility of Earth observations and model predictions in enhancing the ability of policy and management decisions to [boost] renewable energy and energy efficiency,” Eckman told environmentalresearchweb.

One such application is the RETScreen clean-energy project by Natural Resources Canada. Satellite-derived surface meteorology and solar-energy data are fed into this decision-support tool. The aim is to help renewable-energy and energy-efficiency projects by cutting the need for costly, ground-based feasibility tests.

As the tool is free and available in 26 languages, it already boasts 150,000 registered users in 222 countries.

Another application of NASA Earth data is the HOMER computer model of the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). This tool was developed to improve the efficiency of energy-generation networks in both developed and developing countries. Countries set to use the system include China, Australia and the US.

The Pacific Isle of Tac was one of the first users of HOMER. Located off the south coast of Chile, Tac is one of the 40 Chiloe Islands; economic activities include farming, animal husbandry and fishing. In 2003, the Chilean Government wanted to develop Tac’s economy, but the island is too far from the mainland to be connected to the national grid. Wishing to implement the most cost-effective electricity supply, the Government employed a team of international experts to design an energy network using the HOMER tool. Integrating economic, renewable-resource and projected consumption data, HOMER calculated that hybrid wind-diesel generation with battery storage would offer the most cost-effective solution.

“HOMER is used extensively around the world for determining the optimal mix of power technologies for meeting specific load conditions at specific locations,” says the report of July’s congress meeting.

Eckman and colleagues are also collaborating with researchers at NREL and the State University of New York on the use of NASA datasets for solar energy forecasting.

NASA now hopes to develop an array of climate change data so that applications can explore their effects on the energy sector.

“We have a small study currently in progress with some NASA climate modellers looking at their ability to downscale global model predictions to regional scales for use by the power-generation sector,” Eckman told environmentalresearchweb.

And according to Eckman, NASA’s new Global Change programme “will have a much wider focus than just energy applications, and will address the use of NASA observations to inform decision-making in public health, disaster management, air quality, agriculture, ecosystems and other focus areas where climate-change impacts are expected to be felt”.

Together with NREL and ASHRAE, an international society of heating, refrigeration and air-conditioning engineers, NASA scientists are assessing how Earth-observation data can improve the energy efficiency of building designs. And further collaborations are using global surface solar-energy data in agricultural crop-yield models.

Eckman and Stackhouse used July’s WREC conference to describe the potential application of Earth observation to energy policy, but this is only part of a much larger 10-year strategy to incorporate Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS) into development goals. This strategy stemmed from the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, which highlighted the urgent need for global observation of the state of the Earth.