On December 15th, New York regulators approved plans by the state’s largest natural gas utility, National Grid, to pilot new technology developed by Environmental Defense Fund and Google Earth Outreach to maximize the climate benefits of a three-year, $3 billion capital investment program, which includes efforts to replace 585 miles of old, leak-prone pipes on the company’s systems in Long Island and parts of New York City.
Developed using specially equipped Google Street View mapping cars, the technology makes it possible to not only identify but also accurately measure methane escaping from underground gas lines faster and more easily. Methane, the main ingredient in natural gas, is a potent greenhouse gas, with over 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide over a 20-year timeframe. Curbing leaks quickly means big benefits for the climate.
“Reducing methane emissions is one of the quickest ways we have to protect the climate. Not every utility is comfortable inviting an environmental group to come sniffing around for leaks on their system. But National Grid has been an enthusiastic partner, going back to our project launch in 2014,” said Mark Brownstein, head of EDF’s oil and gas program. “By tackling these leaks faster, they will achieve a lot more environmental benefit for their infrastructure dollars.”
Under the agreement approved by the New York Public Service Commission (PSC), National Grid will work with EDF and Google to pilot methane reduction programs that will gather and analyze methane data to prioritize system investments and leak repairs. They are the first utility to publicly embrace and integrate this approach into their operations on an ongoing, long term basis.
Leaks are a persistent challenge for utilities, particularly in the Northeast, where infrastructure is older. Companies are required by law to address safety threats immediately, but large numbers of non-hazardous leaks can persist, often for years. For example, a pilot project two years ago identified close to a thousand low-level leaks in National Grid’s Staten Island service territory alone. Until recently, methane hadn’t been a major priority for regulators or utilities. But a growing body of scientific evidence has brought new attention to the challenge.
“This targeted approach complements our long term strategy of replacing leak prone pipe to minimize methane emissions,” said Sue Fleck, Vice President of Pipeline Safety at National Grid. “We welcome the opportunity to collaborate with EDF to assess and integrate the latest technology for detecting system leaks and prioritizing repairs and leak prone pipe replacement.”
A two-minute video on the EDF/Google Earth Outreach mapping project is available here.
Replacing pipe requires people. National Grid’s accelerated infrastructure replacement program is expected to generate 380 new jobs, according to the PSC, most of them in the New York City metro area. The initiative will also use a robot to seal cast-iron pipes and recondition steel mains from the inside. The work is expected to result in only modest increases in customer bills. The agreement approved by the PSC provides penalties for National Grid if they fail to meet their replacement/leak repair targets, and incentives if they beat them.
“We are excited that new technology powered by Google can play an important role here, to advance the measurement, analysis, and communication of environmental information,” said Karin Tuxen-Bettman, program manager for Google Earth Outreach. “Making this information more accessible can make a meaningful difference in people’s lives.”
Utilities in New York and California are already publishing dynamic maps of their natural gas leaks. Sharing geographically-attributed leak data can help regulators and ratepayers track utilities’ leak management performance, and ensure cost-efficient emission reductions. For its part, National Grid 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 and leak repair programs.
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