EDF, Google Join Forces to Map and Measure Dozens of Underground Leaks from Jacksonville Natural Gas System

Project Highlights Hidden Climate Risk, Reveals Untapped Opportunity; Online Maps Will Help Utilities, Regulators Prioritize System Upgrades

May 3, 2016
Jon Coifman, 212-616-1325, jcoifman@edf.org
Kelsey Robinson, 512-691-3404, krobinson@edf.org

EDF, Google Join Forces to Map and Measure Dozens of Underground Leaks from Jacksonville Natural Gas System

Project Highlights Hidden Climate Risk, Reveals Untapped Opportunity;
Online Maps Will Help Utilities, Regulators Prioritize System Upgrades

(JACKSONVILLE – May 3, 2016) Environmental Defense Fund and Google Earth Outreach have teamed up to create interactive online maps using Google Street View mapping cars specially equipped with sensors and software allowing researchers not only to locate but also measure dozens of natural gas leaks beneath the streets in select parts of the city of Jacksonville. Those areas are all served by TECO Peoples Gas, which has cooperated with researchers on the project.

Utilities are required to address leaks that pose safety threats promptly. However, smaller or more remote leaks can go undetected or unrepaired for long periods. Leaks like these usually don’t pose an immediate risk, but leaking natural gas – which is mostly methane – has a powerful effect on the climate, packing 84 times the warming effect of carbon dioxide over a 20-year timeframe.

“Methane leaks are a serious environmental challenge for utilities everywhere, and a big waste of valuable resources. Fixing these leaks is a quick way to dramatically reduce greenhouse emissions,” said Jonathan Peress, EDF Air Policy Director for Natural Gas. “Replacing old, leak-prone pipes is a necessary but expensive job, and it’s important to be both efficient and cos-effective. The technology we’re demonstrating in Jacksonville can help find problem spots and prioritize those efforts.”

The Jacksonville maps are available at www.edf.org/climate/methanemaps. Neighborhoods including Springfield, San Marco, and Riverside/Avondale were chosen as a representative sample of the system.

A video describing the project more fully is available on YouTube at http://tinyurl.com/MethaneMaps.

About 20 percent of the mains operated by Peoples Gas are at least 50 years old, according to the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA). Rising sea levels put Jacksonville and other Florida communities on the front line of the world’s climate challenge. The mapping project is designed to showcase new sensing technologies to help utilities and regulators prioritize investments in system upgrades in order to maximize environmental and economic benefits.  

The mapping project was developed in collaboration with scientists at Colorado State University. The researchers collected 1.5 million data points driving 820 miles of roadway, and found nearly 90 leaks. That’s fewer leaks per mile than most other gas systems measured by the team. Some, but not all, were already known to the utility.

Florida Making Progress Tackling Leaks

Florida’s regulatory framework for oversight of utilities’ leak management efforts and replacement of local distribution pipes goes beyond those of many other states. Thanks to an accelerated pipeline replacement program approved in 2012 by the Florida Public Service Commission, Peoples Gas has already significantly reduced the levels of leak-prone materials on its system. EDF believes there are more opportunities to reduce methane leaks in Florida.

“Florida has a very strong regulatory framework for leak repair and management. But Florida should also be requiring state-of-the art technologies to find and measure leaks more often, and using that data to prioritize repair and pipeline replacement efforts,” Peress said. “Leaks that are a safety threat should always be fixed immediately, but after that, utilities should be tackling those with the greatest emissions, which pose the most serious threat to the environment.”

Early detection of natural gas leaks benefits both customers and the environment, and has the potential to reduce the need for costly and disruptive emergency repairs. EDF also recommends sharing leak data with the public. Utilities in New York and California are already publishing dynamic maps of their natural gas leaks. EDF believes Florida utilities should be, too.

New Technology Means Better Opportunity

EDF has been working with utilities in cities around the U.S., including Boston, Chicago, New York and Los Angeles to validate technology to detect leaks and assess leak sizes quickly and more efficiently. Methane emissions data from the project is also being used by New Jersey’s largest utility, Public Service Electric and Gas, as part of a three-year, $905 million program to expedite the replacement of up to 510 miles of gas mains and 38,000 service lines.

The technology in this pilot project is newer and more sensitive than devices typically used by utilities to detect leaks on their systems. It is designed to find and measure leaks that wouldn’t necessarily turn up or warrant repair based on safety concerns alone, but which do add up to a major environmental issue. EDF and researchers at Colorado State University have spent four years testing and fine-tuning the technology, which is built specifically to filter out other kinds of methane emissions, including natural sources, waste dumps, and natural gas vehicles.

# # #

Environmental Defense Fund (edf.org), a leading international nonprofit organization, creates transformational solutions to the most serious environmental problems. EDF links science, economics, law, and innovative private-sector partnerships. Connect with us on Twitter, Facebook, and our Energy Exchange blog