Aug 15th, 2019
For most of the U.S. this summer, the air has been thick with a near-constant reminder that technological progress has come at a price. Bolstered by the growing global climate crisis, July 2019 was the world’s hottest month ever recorded. Many found it unpleasant, to say the least, but it was more than just an annoyance; according to the National Weather Service, extreme heat is the most fatal weather-related hazard for the country. In humanity’s haste to move society forward through just a few centuries, we’ve cast a deadly shadow of endangerment over our very lives.
Zoom in on the energy sector and you’ll see this conundrum playing out clearly: Thanks to electricity, we have the ability to power our homes, businesses, schools, hospitals, and data centers. It’s obvious that access to reliable, affordable sources of energy is critical to improving well-being across the globe. But there’s no hiding the industry’s pollution problem. It’s bad news not only for our children and grandchildren, who will live the reality of climate change, but for anyone alive right now who’s gulping down fresh (or not so fresh) air.
According to the World Health Organization, half of the urban population they monitor is exposed to air pollution that is at least 2.5 times higher than recommended levels. These people are at higher risk of serious, long-term health problems like heart disease and respiratory problems. A study several years ago even found that in 2012, 7 million people died as a result of air pollution exposure—a whopping one in eight global deaths.
It doesn’t have to be this way. WattTime’s collaboration with Carbon Tracker on a Google-backed emissions monitoring project will help to change these alarming statistics—starting with a focus on CO2 and with the potential to go far beyond.
Pollution is more than just CO2
As far as pollutants go, carbon dioxide (CO2) gets a lot of attention, and for good reason. The release of this heat-trapping gas into our atmosphere is the leading cause of global warming and must be greatly reduced as quickly as possible for the safety of all living things on this planet. Right now, CO2 levels are still on the rise. For this reason, the primary focus of our emissions monitoring project is to measure the release of CO2 from power plants around the world, and then make that information accessible for anyone working to keep it in check.
But if we look at the world’s biggest health threats right now, there’s more than just CO2 causing premature deaths from breathing unclean air. Fossil-fuel fired power plants play a major role in an unsavory laundry list of those pollutants, which is why we’re exploring the potential of our emissions monitoring solution to track those air quality killers as well.
Sulfur Dioxide (SO2)
Most of the SO2 found in our air comes from fossil fuel combustion at power plants and various other industrial facilities. Those emissions pack a nasty punch for the human body; even short-term exposure can harm the respiratory system and make breathing difficult. People with asthma—particularly children—are even more sensitive to these effects. Environmentally speaking, SO2 can damage and decrease the growth of trees and other foliage and is a known culprit in the formation of acid rain.
Nitrogen Oxide (NOx)
NOx is another dangerous byproduct released during fuel combustion. Inhaling it in high concentrations can cause inflammation of the airways and respiratory distress. This gas can combine with oxygen to form nitrogen dioxide (NO2), which—like SO2—can also interact with water and various chemicals in the atmosphere to form acid rain. NO2 is partially to blame for nutrient pollution in coastal waters.
If you’re a seafood lover, you're probably used to reading about the dangers of mercury poisoning from eating various and high quantities of certain fish. What you might not know is that mercury is one of many pollutants released through the smokestacks of coal-fired power plants, and it can easily make its way into surrounding bodies of water via deposition. That mercury is consumed by fish, which are then consumed by all of us. In high enough concentrations, mercury poisoning can cause problems with vision, hearing, speech, and movement. For children and infants especially, it can negatively impact cognitive thinking, memory, language, fine motor skills, and more.
Particulate Matter (PM)
PM encompasses a huge variety of different groups of chemicals which react to form tiny specks of polluting matter. They’re often emitted directly from smokestacks at power plants and can easily be inhaled or make their way into the bloodstream. Health issues caused by PM can range from heart attacks to asthma to premature death for those already predisposed to heart and lung disease. These harmful particles can be carried far and wide as they settle in lakes, streams, and soil. Those living in cities like Beijing—which struggles with PM 2.5 in particular—know this type of pollution is easy to spot and difficult to deal with, as it adds a thick layer of haze to their skies and makes air unpleasant to breathe.
As with many health hazards that have infiltrated our society, poor air quality doesn’t affect us all equally. Multiple studies have shown that those with lower socioeconomic positions are disproportionately harmed by air pollution. This may stem from the simple fact that major sources of air pollutants, like fossil-fuel burning power plants, are more likely to be located near low-income communities and urban centers.
Regardless of social status or zip code, exposure to air pollution is a problem that should concern us all. By someday measuring and monitoring emissions levels for a long list of pollutants coming from fossil-fueled power plants and beyond, WattTime will not only expose when and where this pollution is taking place, but will also empower people everywhere to guard their health and that of their families. Through our AER technology— which allows energy users to automatically shift their electricity demand to cleaner sources, like wind and solar—we’ll provide a way for people to do something with the pollution data we unveil.
Thanks to federal regulations laid out by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)—especially those that require emissions monitoring—the air we breathe is cleaner than it was a few decades ago. But there’s still much progress to be made, especially as the EPA under the current White House administration is threatening to roll back air quality regulations.
With our emissions monitoring work, WattTime hopes to enable that progress not just in the U.S., but around the world. Our project is a key step toward accurately evaluating the enormity of the global air pollution crisis while encouraging the growth of clean energy technologies that can carry us into a safer and healthier energy future.
If you also believe innovation and human health can exist side by side with the right technology, we hope you’ll join us. For activists, environmentalists, academics, engineers, and hopeful volunteers interested in learning more, contact us today.
With a grant won through the Google AI Impact Challenge, WattTime will use satellite images and image processing algorithms to monitor emissions from power plants around the world.