Google Adding Methane Detectors To Street View Cars

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Methane is the major component of natural gas. It burns far cleaner than coal, which makes it one of the least worst choices when it comes to generating electricity from a fossil fuel. But before it is burned, it is one of the most powerful greenhouse gases known. According to Princeton University, it is about 30 times more powerful when it comes to raising average global temperatures once it escapes into the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.

methane pipeline
Credit: Fast Company

Fossil fuel companies don’t seem too worried about its environmental damage but they hate to see their investment squandered. Every year, about 10 million tons of methane escapes into the atmosphere somewhere between the well head and the point of use. That’s 10 million tons of lost profits for the companies — nothing to sneeze at, for sure. Much of the leakage occurs from aging underground distribution pipes, but finding the source of those leaks can be exceedingly difficult.

That’s where the Environmental Defense Fund comes in. EDF president Fred Krupp asked lead scientist Steven Hamburg if there was an easy way to detect methane leaks by mounting sensors on cars. “To be honest, I told him no,” Hamburg says. The problem is distinguishing methane that comes from leaks from methane from other sources such as landfills or vehicles powered by natural gas.

Serendipity Kicks In

Things changed when Hamburg gave a talk at the Colorado State College in Boulder. Biologist Joe von Fischer was in the audience. He related to Hamburg what happened when he had a graduate student mount a methane detector to a car and drive around town. A leak from a bioreactor at a local brewery was soon identified. Tightening a loose connection solved the problem. Von Fischer was delighted to share his knowledge with EDF and collaborate on how to put it to practical use.

Still, constructing a reliable process for detecting methane leaks required two years of intensive research and experimentation. “You can say, ‘Let’s put methane sensors in the back of a car,’ but you get 60 data points per second out of that stream,” says von Fischer. “To turn that into a map of where natural gas leaks are and how big those leaks are requires a lot of science, a lot of interpreting of the data.” Fast Company reports that von Fischer collaborated with computer scientists and a micrometeorologist at Colorado State to develop  an algorithm to identify leaks by modeling plumes of methane in space and time and matching them to “fingerprints” of sample leaks of various sizes.

Getting Google Involved

While von Fischer was doing his thing, EDF turned to Google for help with the project. The response was immediate and enthusiastic. “We said, ‘Great!’ Not only is this an organization that already has a scientific partner, but EDF knows how to act on knowledge in a way that has policy impact,” says Karin Tuxen-Bettman, program manager at Google Earth Outreach. Her team helps nonprofits find new and creative uses for the company’s tools. “They are talking to utilities, and they can put data in front of people who can make a difference.”

Google installed the detection system developed by EDF with input from von Fischer into some of its Street View cars and began testing in Boston, Indianapolis, and New York City. The system involves a pump that draws air in through a small tube under the front bumper and sends it to a methane analyzer mounted in the trunk. A GPS unit records the route driven and beams that information to a Google server via a cell phone modem. Then von Fischer is able to access the data collected at his office in Colorado.

Boston has an archaic and decrepit system of pipes beneath its streets. The Street View cars driving around Beantown found an average of one methane leak for every mile driven. Contrast that to Indianapolis, where only one leak was detected for every 200 miles traveled

EDF then began sharing the information it was collecting with utility companies. Utilities spend millions to find and fix leaks every year. “We said, ‘That’s great. How can we collaborate?’ ” says Donald Chahbazpour, National Grid’s director of climate change compliance. “We can find leaks, but they are tough to quantify, and what we hadn’t been able to do is prioritize based on leak size.”

Collaboration Begets More Collaboration

National Grid quickly came on board. “You can have unlikely partners as great collaborators, and this happens by sitting down and spending time listening to each other,” says Chahbazpour. “You’d be surprised. A lot of times you’ll be thinking about the same issue, but thinking about it differently.”

Other utilities got wind of what was happening and asked to get involved as well. One New Jersey utility reduced methane emissions from targeted areas by more than three quarters while replacing one third fewer miles of pipe. New York City is using the data to maximize the climate benefits of a three year long project that will replace nearly 600 miles of old pipes that are prime candidates for leakage. That project will cost $3 billion by the time it is done.

One of the factors driving the success of the EDF effort is the collaborative approach adopted by its president, Fred Krupp. Where other environmental groups are attacking utilities and fossil fuel companies head on, Krupp’s approach is building bridges that connect various interest groups. “When a diverse group like this collaborates on a common problem, we can tackle environmental challenges with more agility than ever before,” says Steven Hamburg.

Google is now working on installing other air quality sensors in its Street View cars. “The EDF partnership showed it was possible and could have impact,” says Google’s Tuxen-Bettman. “We intend to go bigger in the future.”

EDF Expands In New Directions

As for EDF, its collaborative approach is paying off in other ways as well. Four years ago it launched the Methane Detectors Challenge which invited tech companies to develop inexpensive methane sensors that could continuously monitor industrial equipment. It got submissions from dozens of interested parties and now has pilot programs going with Shell, Statoil, and PG&E.

Two months ago, EDF began yet another initiative, the Mobile Monitoring Challenge, in cooperation with Stanford University. Its goal is to devise sensors that can be attached to airplanes, helicopters, and drones. Such sensors could cover large areas where oil and natural gas extraction is taking place and monitor them for methane leaks very economically. “You could use this [technology] to survey an entire region worth of equipment,” says Mark Brownstein, vice president in the climate and energy program at EDF. “You could use it for refineries, for leaks along the pipeline system.”

Working Together Instead Of Pulling Apart

EDF’s approach could teach valuable lessons to policy makers and scientists advocating for aggressive measures to combat climate change such as the the new Alliance For World Scientists which just issued a report signed by 15,000 scientists warning that irreversible changes have already begun. For Brownstein and others at EDF, the goal is to bring the right people together to create innovative solutions. “The easier it is to find problems and fix them, the more likely companies will, especially if we can make a compelling business case,” Brownstein says (emphasis added). “Our role really is to catalyze the types of changes that can transform industry and reduce pollution.”

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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