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PSE&G and EDF ‘Google It’

Innovative use of leading-edge technology helps PSE&G find and fix methane leaks faster. That’s good for ratepayers, good for the environment

google street view car

Natural-gas leaks are a persistent challenge for utility companies. Like other utilities, PSE&G monitors its system carefully, and fixes any leaks that pose a safety risk quickly. But other leaks that don’t pose an immediate hazard can linger while companies work their way through upgrading thousands of miles of old infrastructure. When these nonhazardous leaks add up, however, they create an environmental concern. That’s because methane — the main ingredient in natural gas — has more than 84 times the warming power of carbon dioxide over a 20-year timeframe.

Until recently, it was hard to measure the leak problem on a large scale. But an innovative collaboration between PSE&G, Google Earth Outreach, and the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) is setting an example for utilities around the country by demonstrating faster, better ways to map and measure methane coming from underground pipes. The technology is helping PSE&G prioritize which pipes are replaced first during its three-year, $905 million accelerated gas-pipe replacement program.

Because methane is such a potent greenhouse gas, reducing emissions is one of the most effective and expeditious ways to protect the climate. PSE&G deserves a lot of credit for making this a priority. It takes courage to invite an environmental group to look for leaks in their system. By fixing leaks faster, PSE&G will achieve a lot more environmental benefit for its infrastructure dollars. That’s good for its customers, and good for New Jersey.

PSE&G and EDF used specially equipped Street View mapping cars to sniff out and size up leaks in some of the most densely populated areas in New Jersey, including parts of Bergen, Essex, Hudson, and Passaic counties, under a pioneering agreement approved by New Jersey’s Board of Public Utilities in 2015.

The cars took millions of readings over hundreds of miles of roadway. Using that information, PSE&G was able to reduce methane emissions from targeted areas by 83 percent, and do it more quickly than otherwise possible. PSE&G achieved this emission reduction while replacing one-third fewer miles of pipe than if the utility had not used the data gathered by EDF and Google.

PSE&G is accelerating the modernization of its gas system, replacing 170 miles of pipe each year versus an average of 54 miles in the past. Reducing methane is a serious challenge for utilities, but also a big opportunity. Using the data from EDF, the utility is keeping safety paramount, while achieving more environmental value, at less cost and more quickly than before, which benefits both PSE&G customers and the climate.

A two-minute video on the EDF/Google Earth Outreach mapping project is here.

The team surveyed 30 one-square-mile grids in PSE&G’s service territory, using a Google Street View car outfitted with methane sensors. PSE&G shared the type and location of the gas lines it was looking to replace, making it possible to orient the survey efforts in a manner responsive to the company’s pipe replacement program. Readings were taken from May 2015 through November 2015.

The results of the New Jersey project, and the national implications of this work are discussed here.

What the new dataset on leak-flow rate provides to PSE&G is a layer of insight not previously available. Where two or more grids have a comparable safety ranking and are not immediately hazardous, PSE&G is addressing the one with the higher methane emissions first. This is what allows the company to enhance environmental, ratepayer, and safety benefits.

Maps of the prioritized grids and the leaks are available on EDF’s website. Sharing geographically attributed leak data can help regulators and ratepayers track utilities’ leak-management performance, and ensure cost-efficient emission reductions. At EDF, we are excited that new technology powered by Google can play a key role in advancing the measurement, analysis, and communication of environmental information.

For its part, PSE&G is leading the way in using leak data to make better management decisions, demonstrating that new and improved data can maximize the benefits of pipeline replacement programs.

Virginia Palacios is senior research analyst at the Environmental Defense Fund.

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