Look­ing for nat­u­ral gas leaks? Ask Google

Sen­sors in Street View cars can de­tect prob­lems

USA TODAY Weekend Extra - - NEWS - Gre­gory Korte

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 fun­ny­look­ing Google Street View cars driv­ing around tak­ing pic­tures 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.

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,” said 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,” said 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 and drive it around Fort Collins, Colorado. He dis­cov­ered ob­vi­ous sources of meth­ane: land­fills, 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,” said 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.

The Google cars suck in air and fun­nel it through a sen­sor that uses lasers to mea­sure the amount of meth­ane.

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

Von Fis­cher said 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 said they can of­ten be suc­cess­ful in get­ting com­pa­nies to be more trans­par­ent.

“That’s a big part of what we do,” she said. “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’s pro­pos­als with agree­ments to im­prove trans­parency, Holz­man said. Last month, the group filed share­holder res­o­lu­tions with UGI Util­i­ties and Atmos En­ergy.

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 said. “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 the in­dus­try adopts some of their tech­niques to fix more leaks.

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


A Google Street View car equipped with low-to-the-ground meth­ane-sniff­ing sen­sors can de­tect nat­u­ral gas leaks, re­port­ing co­or­di­nates and meth­ane lev­els every half-sec­ond.

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