An unusual collaboration between the state’s largest utility, a prominent environmental organization, and a leading high-tech outfit is finding a way to more quickly replace natural-gas pipes that are leaking methane gas, a potent source of global-warming pollution.
The project is helping Public Service Electric & Gas prioritize which aging pipes are replaced first during a three-year, $905 million gas-modernization program approved by state regulators.
With a boom in the natural-gas sector and at least a dozen new natural-gas pipelines under consideration in New Jersey, the problem of leaks is increasingly drawing the scrutiny of legislators and policymakers.
The methane detection program — a joint venture of PSE&G, Google Earth Outreach, and the Environmental Defense Fund — appears to offer an innovative way to map and measure leaks from pipes in the system.
Leaks like those targeted by the project don’t usually pose an immediate safety risk, and when they do, they are quickly repaired or replaced. But leaking natural gas, which is mostly methane, can contribute to climate change. Methane is more than 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide in warming the globe.
PSE&G has more cast iron pipes, the type most prone to leaks, in its system than any other utility in the nation. Approximately 3,900 miles of mains remain cast iron, of the system’s 18,000 miles, according to Wade Miller, director of gas, transmission and distribution engineering for the 113-year-old utility.
“Reducing methane emissions is one of the quickest ways we have to protect the climate,’’ said Fred Krupp, president of EDF. “PSE&G deserves a lot of credit for making this a priority. It takes courage to invite an environmental group to come sniffing around for leaks in their system.’’
The key breakthrough in the program is measuring the volume of gas escaping, not just the number of leaks.
Using data gathered by a specially-equipped Google Street View mapping car, PSE&G was able to reduce methane emissions from targeted areas by 85 percent, and do it more quickly than otherwise possible. The typical cost of replacing a mile of gas line on the utility’s system ranges between $1.5 million and $2 million.
The utility even achieved the reductions while replacing 35 percent fewer miles of the pipe than it would have without the data gathered by EDF and Google, a task that involved six months of collecting millions of reading over some of the more densely populated areas of the state.
By 2018, the utility plans to replace 510 miles of aging cast-iron and unprotected steel gas lines, under a program approved in 2015 by the state Board of Public Utilities. Finishing the job is likely to be a long-term commitment of up to 25 years, according to Miller.
“Reducing methane is a serious challenge for utilities, but also a big opportunity,’’ said Ralph LaRossa, president and COO of PSE&G. “Using the data from EDF, we are able to keep safety paramount, while achieving more environmental value, at least cost and more quickly than before, which benefits both our customers and the climate.’’
Earlier this year, a legislative committee approved a bill (A-496) that would require utilities to repair or replace pipelines that leak gas within timeframes to be established by the state Department of Environmental Protection, but the measure has since stalled.