Google cars sniff for natural gas leaks in old utility pipelines

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Natural gas is distributed to homes across the USA through a network of aging pipes.
Cincinnati Enquirer

In older American cities like New York and Boston, there can be as many gas leaks as there are miles of road.

How do we know? Because Google drove those city streets – and mapped every leak. 

In some communities, those funny-looking Google Street View cars driving around taking pictures of houses and storefronts are also sniffing for natural gas – part of an effort to detect and fix leaks before they become bigger problems.

When those leaks spark fires or explosions, the cost can be measured in homes destroyed and lives lost. But even when they don’t turn catastrophic, the nation’s aging natural gas infrastructure has environmental and economic costs.

More: Pipeline peril: Natural gas explosions reveal silent danger lurking in old cast iron pipes

Methane – the lighter-than-air flammable gas that makes up almost 100 percent of natural gas – is also a greenhouse gas, as much as 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

One recent study found that methane leaks from the natural gas industry are 60 percent higher than previous EPA estimates, offsetting most of the climate benefits of using cleaner-burning natural gas over coal.

Finding and fixing those leaks is “one of the best bargains out there in terms of a climate solution,” says Jon Coifman of the Environmental Defense Fund.  

And customers are paying for leaked gas, even if it never reaches their homes. The Environmental Protection Agency’s Inspector General estimated in 2014 that consumers were paying $194 million a year for that leaked natural gas – and that federal regulators weren’t doing enough to stop it.

Indeed, much of what we know about natural gas leaks comes from independent scientists such as Joe von Fischer. 

“It’s a fascinating problem,” says von Fischer, a biologist at Colorado State University. “Methane was already my favorite gas. Everybody has a favorite gas, and methane was mine.” 

Eight years ago, von Fischer had the idea to buy a $30,000 methane-sniffing sensor, put it in the back of his pickup truck, and drive it around Fort Collins, Colorado.

He discovered obvious sources of methane: Landfills, and a gas-powered water treatment plant. But he also discovered leaks that no one knew about.   

As sensors became smaller and cheaper – they’re now $3,000 and the size of a laptop computer – von Fischer joined with the Environmental Defense Fund and Google to measure leaks in major U.S. cities. 

“One of the biggest capabilities that Google brings to any project we work on is the ability to scale it to a global scale,” says Karin Tuxen-Bettman, a program manager for the Google Earth Outreach team.

And what started with methane has now grown into a larger Google project to measure other sources of air pollution in cities around the world.

More: Tech firms like Google, Amazon push power companies toward solar and wind, a blow to coal

The Google cars suck in air and funnel it through a sensor that uses lasers to measure the amount of methane. Measurements are taken twice a second, with GPS coordinates and wind direction. 

The Google cars drive every street at least twice, to rule out other sources of methane, such as natural gas-powered buses. 

Von Fischer says he has a good working relationship with utilities: “I work really hard not to throw utilities under the bus. Sometimes they crawl underneath there on their own.”

Several, including New Jersey’s PSE&G and New York’s Consolidated Edison, have expressed interest in using his methods themselves.

Those utilities are under increasing pressure to do something about leaks – in part because consumers and shareholders are growing more aware of the problem.

As You Sow, a shareholder activist group, has tried to force utilities to limit methane emissions with shareholder resolutions. 

The resolutions rarely win in proxy fights. But As You Sow’s Lila Holzman says they can often be successful in getting companies to be more transparent. 

“That’s a big part of what we do,” she says.  “We really advocate for companies to do a much better job of explaining what their plans are: What are they going to do about this problem?”

Exelon and DTE Energy responded to As You Sow proposals with agreements to improve transparency, Holzman said. Last month, the group filed shareholder resolutions with UGI Utilities and Atmos Energy.

Half a million leaks a year

In data submitted to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, natural gas utilities said they fixed 493,862 leaks last year. Still, they ended the year with 85,304 known leaks unaddressed.

And under industry-written standards, that’s an acceptable practice.

Utilities rate leaks on a three-point scale: Grade 1 leaks are hazardous and should be repaired immediately, but smaller Grade 3 leaks can remain unfixed for years.

Some of the largest utilities – the Boston Gas Co., Washington Gas and others – lose more than 3 percent of their gas to leaks, according to data they report to PHMSA.  

For some smaller city-run utilities, losses are much higher. Ford City, Kansas, a town of 216 people that still sends gas customers handwritten bills, couldn’t account for 40 percent of its gas last year.

Every state allows utilities to charge customers for gas lost on the way to their homes. The Supreme Court ruled in 1936 that gas leaks are “unavoidable, no matter how carefully the business is conducted.”

“You have to understand the business model that utilities work on,” von Fischer says. “These utilities really are concerned about safety. They don’t want to hurt anybody. That’s human nature. And of course there’s legal liability. But historically they’ve been less concerned with the other costs of leaks.”

Google’s methane-sniffing cars are an experiment. But the people behind them hope that the industry adopts some of their techniques to fix more leaks. 

“And in the most progressive utilities,” Von Fischer says, “that’s exactly what’s happening.” 

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