Technology

Methane Emissions & Mobile Solutions

 By Andrew Burger

Governments and natural gas industry players are taking measures to reduce methane and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions amidst global efforts to mitigate climate change and spur sustainable socioeconomic development…

Methane (CH4) emissions are relatively short-lived once in the atmosphere when compared to carbon dioxide (CO2), which is the most common GHG. However, it is much more potent in terms of its Greenhouse Effect, having 86 times CO2’s Global Warming Potential (GWP) over a 20-year period. Critical to this success of these initiatives is improving the capacity to detect, measure, trace and analyze methane, carbon dioxide and other GHG emissions in order to identify their origin, then repair leaks as quickly as possible. Young, innovative environmental technology companies are working with natural gas and utility industry players to do just that.

Precise, Mobile Carbon Emissions Detection

California-based Picarro’s carbon isotope and trace gas analyzers are enabling natural gas industry players and public stakeholders to detect, trace, measure, analyze and remedy methane, carbon dioxide and other types of GHG leaks and emissions with unprecedented speed, precision and ease. The Picarro Surveyor is also compact enough to be mounted on vehicles, creating a mobile solution that’s vastly improving operational efficiency and saving natural gas companies and consumers money, while reducing GHG emissions and enhancing environmental and public health and safety.

The Picarro Surveyor is also compact enough to be mounted on vehicles

San Francisco-based Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) was the first to capitalize on the Picarro Surveyor, which is said to be 1,000-times more sensitive to methane in the atmosphere than today’s prevailing technology. Mounted on PG&E vehicles, utility field staff have driven 60,000-plus miles using the Picarro Surveyor to sniff out methane emissions and leaks across the utility’s California service territory. Just recently, management announced the utility had finished inspecting 1 million of the gas service lines that connect customer properties to its gas distribution network.

Minor leaks have been nearly eliminated–reduced 99 percent–since 2010 as a result, PG&E highlights in a news release. That’s resulted in substantial cost savings and reduced GHG emissions. “PG&E has led the industry in the adoption of the Picarro solution. The partnership that we have with PG&E has enabled us to revolutionize, through data and analytics, a process that has been in place for decades, allowing for enhanced safety while driving towards a more reliable and affordable energy future,” Picarro president and CEO Alex Balkanski said in a press statement.

Revealing Urban Methane Leaks and Emissions

Scientists have used the Picarro Surveyor and other mobile solutions to detect and map methane emissions across major U.S. cities, including Boston and Los Angeles. The results have been startling.

Scientists have used the Picarro Surveyor and other mobile solutions to detect and map methane emissions across major U.S. cities

A massive methane leak at the Aliso Canyon underground natural gas storage facility outside Los Angeles detected in October 2015—the largest of its kind ever—raised the specter of fuel shortages, power shortages and a spike in the cost of electricity. It also prompted state leaders and utilities, including PG&E, to accelerate plans to acquire alternative, primarily lithium-ion battery-based, energy storage capacity.

In 2016, a team of University of California, Irvine (UCI) scientists drove a specially equipped cargo van hundreds of miles across the Los Angeles area, taking readings with instruments designed to measure methane, ethane, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide. They observed heightened methane levels and pinpointed 213 “hot” spots. “Our surveys demonstrate the prevalence of unwanted methane emissions across the Los Angeles urban landscape and show that two-thirds of the gas comes from fossil fuel origins,” study lead author Karen Hopkins summarized for a press report. “Known sources of methane include cattle, geologic seeps, landfills and compressed natural gas fueling stations.”

Rapid, Mobile Response

Utilities are responding in other ways, as well. Adding to its investment in Picarro’s technology, PG&E outfitted two new vehicles with Picarro Surveyors this year. “The Picarro Surveyor™ technology has transformed our ability to find and then fix natural gas leaks on our system,” president of PG&E Gas Nick Stavropoulos said. “Mobile measurements are really important because you can examine the fine-scale structure of variations in methane within neighborhoods and begin to identify the origins,” Jim Randerson, UCI Chancellor’s Professor of Earth Systems Science and study principal investigator, explained. “It’s often not possible to pinpoint individual sources with aircraft observations.” As for PG&E: “We’ll build on our success and create the next generation of leak management capabilities for the industry by enhancing safety, improving quality and capturing efficiencies as well as reducing the impact on the environment,” Stavropoulos said.

SEE MORE: Global gas trade shifts by Amanda Saint

about the author
Andrew Burger
Andrew Burger has been reporting on energy, technology, political economy, climate and the environment for a variety of online media properties for over five years.