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Google maps methane leaks

Posted on behalf of Mark Zastrow.

Google’s fleet of city-mapping cars are now working to measure urban natural gas leaks.

The technology giant’s collaboration with the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), announced on 16 July, equips Google’s Street View cars with sensors to detect methane leaking from ageing city pipes, through city streets and into the atmosphere. The sensors were developed by researchers at Colorado State University in Fort Collins.

The project has released online methane maps for Boston, Massachusetts; Staten Island in New York; and Indianapolis, Indiana. The team found thousands of leaks in Boston and Staten Island at a rate of roughly one per every mile (1.6 kilometres) of road driven, whereas Indianapolis’s roads are leaking only once every 200 miles (322 kilometres) — a sign of newer infrastructure.

These leaks are too small to be a health or explosion risk, but they are also a growing climate concern; methane is 86 times more powerful as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, over a 20-year period, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Massachusetts passed legislation in June that requires utilities to speed up their pipe replacement, and California is considering following suit.

“We think [this technique] will offer a new way for utilities and regulators to evaluate their ongoing leak detection and repair programs,” says Mark Brownstein, the leader of the EDF’s natural gas efforts. The group says that utilities could reduce their emissions 2–3 times faster by prioritizing those larger leaks.

But just how utilities might actually use the data in practice remains to be seen, says Susan Fleck, vice-president of pipeline safety for National Grid, a London-based private utility that is also collaborating on the mapping project. “You know, I just have to be really up front about this. This is a pilot programme, right? So it’s kind of hard to say exactly how this is going to work out,” she told reporters.

Nathan Phillips, an ecologist at Boston University in Massachusetts, is sceptical that the data will help utility operators identify specific leaks. Phillips’ team pioneered car-borne urban methane mapping in Boston and has a separate project funded by the EDF, but is not involved with the Google effort. He points out that utilities already know from their own records where the ageing and leak-prone cast iron pipes are. “It doesn’t take a lot of guesswork to say, ‘There’s a 120 year old pipe running under this street, it’s probably a leaky street.’”

What excites him are the project’s plans to go nationwide and the opportunity to compare data across cities. Already, he says he is struck by how few leaks Indianapolis has compared to Boston and Staten Island, a sign of its newer infrastructure. He wonders if publicly owned gas networks (such as that of Indianapolis) will prove less leaky than those owned by private companies that need to balance expansion and market share with maintenance of existing infrastructure; it’s the type of question ‘Big Data’ could answer.

“That’s the beauty of what Google and EDF are getting into,” he says. “This is just a kind of teaser.”

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