A plan to measure carbon emissions that even a dummy could run

As the leaders of the world prepare for the critical Copenhagen climate and environment summit in December, Michael Woelk has a message he'd like them to hear. You can't fix what you can't measure. And it won't cost that much to measure carbon emissions down to the factory smokestack. For the entire U.S., Woelk believes a carbon measurement network can be built for $300 million in less than five years. To build a global system? Less than $5 billion.

Considering that the Administration's "Cash for Clunkers" program cost over $1 billion and will have very little impact on U.S. energy consumption or carbon emissions, Woelk's proposal would seem to be one that's nearly impossible to refuse. "It's a tiny amount of money, ridiculously small," says Woelk.

Naturally, he's a bit biased. Woelk is the CEO of Picarro, a Sunnyvale Calif.-based company that makes whiz-bang tools for measuring emissions of climate changing gases including carbon and methane. The tools basically shoot a laser beam thousands of times per second at a sample and look for changes in wavelength signals to determine concentrations of carbon and other substances. Picarro's 58-pound sensor boxes cost $50,000 per unit. So Woelk and his company stand to make a mint if they can convince the world to adopt their technology as a key part of any system for measuring carbon emissions.

His story is a compelling one. I sat down with Woelk for an animated discussion about Picarro and carbon emissions, among other topics, on a chilly weekday in Picarro's offices in a maze of single-story technology parks and strip malls. A long-time salesman who previously held a VP role at Varian (VARI) -- a prominent maker of semiconductor testing equipment and scientific tools -- Woelk has also quickly turned Picarro into one of the few profitable greentech companies on the bleeding edge of science.

To date, his customers have been a handful of scientists tracking carbon emissions. Those scientists come from marquee institutions such as the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Penn State University, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. These scientists, who are generally exacting customers, have given Picarro's laser sensors rave reviews for ease of use, accuracy, and relative portability. Incidentally, the appeal is international. China, with increasing concern about its own role in global warming, is Picarro's largest customer at this point.

Even a Dummy Can Run It run it

What's different about Picarro's products is that they are, in fact portable and do not require constant care and feeding. Other instruments used to measure carbon content in air samples are the size of a dishwasher or a phone booth and require constant calibration. Picarro products are autonomous enough to place in remote locations and leave behind. Scientists could strap them into the holds of commercial airliners (this is already being done), underneath traffic helicopters or atop cell phone towers. One set of Picarro sensors spent several months in Greenland as part of a scientific expedition testing climate change factors.

Portability and reliability is great. But Woelk believes that Picarro's products are simple enough to use that even a lowly labtech at a power plant or an oil refinery could plug in a box, connect it to the Internet, and pull up easy-to-read charts showing real-time carbon emissions at the site. "There are very few scientists in the world relative to other people. We want our instruments to be approachable and usable with GUI interface," says Woelk. If true, that would mean that Picarro is indeed the ideal tool for any sort of distributed network of sensors, a near given for down-to-the-square-kilometer measurement of carbon emissions.

A Better Way to Measure Carbon

To date, carbon measurement has been a bit of a voodoo science with software tools attempting to measure how much coal, oil, and gasoline get burned and how much carbon gets absorbed by trees or peat bogs using a guesstimate approach to measurement. This method is called an inventory system, and experts have long questioned whether it can stand the test of time due to its indirect nature and the lack of actual measurements of carbon in the atmosphere.

Rightly, Woelk believes that without an accurate way to measure carbon outputs down to the kilometer or less, any efforts to institute a cap-and-trade or carbon tax system will be ripe for fraud. "We have one chance to get this right. If we fail, it could be the biggest economic bubble we will never recover from. You are talking hundreds of billions of dollars in potential carbon trading revenues -- and we don't have a way to accurately measure outputs yet? That's sounds more like Enron than a true options exchange," says Woelk.

What's stunning is that carbon trading market transactions already eclipse $100 billion. Already a number of carbon credits trading programs have launched around the world. The three largest are all in Europe including Climex in Amsterdam, BlueNext in Paris the Climate Spot Exchange and European Climate Exchange, respectively in London.

Not surprisingly, reports of fraudulent carbon credit verification and mitigation schemes are on the rise. In September, the European Union overhauled its Value-Added Tax system as it related to carbon credits to head off burgeoning fraud problems ahead of Copenhagen, the Guardian reported. And the United Nations in September suspended the accreditation of the world's largest carbon auditor, the Times of London reported. This was the second suspension in the past year of a major carbon auditor. Such fraud -- and subsequent enforcement -- would seem to be a huge advertisement for Picarro. If these exchanges hope to grow, a measurement component could become a necessity. Or so Michael Woelk and his team at Picarro hope.

Alex Salkever is Senior Writer at AOL Daily Finance covering technology and greentech. Follow him on twitter @alexsalkever, read his articles, or email him at alex@dailyfinance.com.

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