Eyes in the Sky Offer a Dramatic Picture of Energy Use

by Ryan Kennedy, Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Houston

Some readers will remember the dramatic change that took place with computer access in the 1980s and 1990s. Computers were once large machines, which took entire rooms to themselves and were only available to major corporations, government organizations and universities. This changed dramatically in the 1980s with the introduction of the personal computer. Much smaller machines, still capable of doing advanced computations with what, for the time, was amazing speed.

Today we may be experiencing a similar revolution, but this time with satellites, and this revolution will have important implications for the energy industry. Two interrelated trends are driving this. First, governments and corporations are opening up the data collected from their satellites for public use. One of the most popular examples of this is the Night Lights dataset, provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Originally used to detect cloud cover for military usage, NOAA now makes available a global map of the world as it is lit at night – producing dramatic illustrations of global energy usage, like the map of North and South Korea below.


The second trend has the potential to be even more disruptive. Much as the microprocessor allowed access to computers for the masses, the development of picosatellites – small, low-cost satellites that could be used for a variety of purposes – have the potential to do the same for satellites. Planet, for example, is a private company that utilizes a chain of satellites constantly orbiting the earth to collect high-resolution pictures of the planet at all times. From this information, they design computer algorithms to monitor supply chains, natural disasters and a variety of other metrics that may interest other companies. Everyone from NASA to SpaceX is now trying to encourage the development and deployment of smaller and smaller satellites that can do everything from monitoring pollution to creating an artificial meteor shower.

The explosion of satellite data has large potential impacts on research and policy in the energy arena. Eugenie Dugoua at Columbia University, Johannes Urpelainen at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and I approached a specific application of this satellite data in our forthcoming article in the International Journal of Remote Sensing. We used the data from the Night Lights dataset to explore the extent to which it could be used to track electrification patterns among villages in rural India. This was the largest attempt to validate the data on a sub-national level, and our results suggested satellite data could be used with reasonable success to track the progress of rural electrification throughout India.

This suggests policymakers can use such data to gain nearer-real-time monitoring of the progress of their policies, without having to wait for the next census.

There were, however, some caveats. First, we noticed that the capability of the satellite data to capture the development of rural electrification was conditioned on the methods used for analysis. In particular, the performance depended greatly on how good the available geographic information was for the actual shape of the village. Second, we noted that the capability of the satellite data to detect electrification was conditioned on the steadiness of the regional electricity supply. This suggests satellite data works better in areas that are more developed and have access to high quality connections. Finally, even though some scholars have used Night Lights to detect the level of economic development for regions, we find that it is not a very strong indicator in rural India, where the government has made a strong push to electrify poorer villages.

All of these findings suggest some areas about which policymakers and corporations need to be aware for the upcoming satellite revolution. While satellite data can do a lot for us, the ability to develop good proxies for events on the ground still depends on our ability to directly capture the relevant comparison information. Satellite data may not replace traditional monitoring, but it will likely provide a way to get data more quickly and cheaply between traditional data gathering periods.

It also provides a warning about the limitations of satellite data collection. Careful validation is crucial for understanding what the satellites are actually capturing with their images and making sure the data means what we think it does.

Much like the hype about “Big Data,” managers should beware of latching onto this data before its utility has been established.

We must also be aware of the context around the data collected. As we found, policies intended to electrify poorer villages undermined the ability for us to use the satellite data for measuring economic wellbeing, since some villages gained electricity access exactly because they were underprivileged. As with any data source, we need to have a clear understanding of the process that generates the data we observe.

We are moving into a potentially revolutionary era when it comes to the accessibility of data from satellites. With careful study and evaluation, this data can greatly assist corporations and governments as we attempt to purse policy goals and monitor how our world works.


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