Selected tags: Fugitive Emissions

EDF Energy Innovation Series Feature #18: Gas Leak Detection From Picarro

EDF's Energy Innovation Series highlights innovations across a broad range of energy categories, including smart grid and renewable energy technologies, energy efficiency financing and progressive utilities, to name a few. This Series helps illustrate that cost-effective, clean energy solutions are available now and imperative to lowering our dependence on fossil fuels.

For more information on this featured innovation, please view this video on Picarro's innovation.

With the surge in shale gas discovery and development, natural gas, which is approximately 90% methane, is a growing part of our nation’s energy mix. There are now more than 40,000 shale gas wells in operation in the U.S. today – three times as many as in 2005.

Despite its great promise though, current production practices all too often impose unacceptable impacts on air, water and landscapes. Methane leakage is a key area of concern, as leaks during the production, distribution and use of natural gas have the potential to undermine and possibly even reverse the greenhouse gas advantage that natural gas has over coal or oil. This is because methane is a remarkably powerful greenhouse gas and its effect on the climate is 72-times more potent than that of carbon dioxide over a 20-year time frame. Estimates of fugitive emissions range from 1.5 to 9.0%; the truth of the matter is that no one knows for sure.

Enter Picarro SurveyorTM from the Silicon Valley start-up Picarro, which makes devices and software that detect, measure and analyze a range of gasses from acetylene and CO2 to ammonia and formaldehyde. This high-tech solution, which integrates a mobile methane gas analyzer with cloud-based, geo-informatics software, is currently in use by companies like PG&E (not to mention EDF’s own scientists).

"When it comes to safety and environmental impact, we know that fugitive natural gas leaks are an important factor, which gas companies must manage carefully," said Michael Woelk, CEO of Picarro. "Our technology is making that process easier by modernizing the way these companies detect leaks along their pipelines. The result is better public safety and a healthier environment.”

Source: Picarro

About the size of a suitcase, Picarro Surveyor can be installed in the trunk of a car. Additional sensors installed on the car’s roof capture wind speed and direction to determine the source of even the most trace amounts of gas. The technology also distinguishes natural gas leaks from other sources of methane, such as landfills, sewers or livestock. The results are matched with GPS data via Picarro’s cloud-based data processing platform, P-Cubed®, and reporting is available online to anyone with a web-enabled device and secure connection.  This allows personnel to investigate gas sources and coordinate necessary responses to repair the leaks. This real-time, networked detection system replaces the incumbent process of monitoring natural gas pipeline leaks by workers on foot patrolling areas with hand-held detectors and manually logging their results.

PG&E is currently deploying multiple Picarro Surveyors and is optimistic about its results.  "This gas detection technology is revolutionary," PG&E's EVP of Gas Operations Nick Stavropoulos noted in a PG&E video. "It is going to change the way all gas companies across the world try to find and detect leaks. It is so much more precise, so much more real-time, in terms of the information it provides us."

Picarro also layers current wind and weather data on Google Maps and satellite images, providing visual simulations that help pinpoint potential sources and predict possible affected areas.

Natural gas can have significant climate benefits over coal and oil. But only if leaks are adequately detected and quickly reduced.  New emissions detection technology, like Picarro Surveyor, make it possible for industry to implement more effective methane leak detection and repair programs today, and enables regulators to establish emission limits and detection practices that mitigate methane pollution.

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Measuring Fugitive Methane Emissions

In recent days, news reports and blog posts have highlighted the problem of fugitive methane emissions from natural gas production — leakage of a potent greenhouse gas with the potential to undermine the carbon advantage that natural gas, when combusted, holds over other fossil fuels. These news accounts, based on important studies in the Denver-Julesburg Basin of Colorado and the Uinta Basin of Utah by scientists affiliated with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the University of Colorado (UC) at Boulder, have reported troubling leakage rates of 4% and 9% of total production, respectively —higher than the current Environment Protection Agency (EPA) leakage estimate of 2.3%.

While the Colorado and Utah studies offer valuable snapshots of a specific place on a specific day, neither is a systematic measurement across geographies and extended time periods  and that is what’s necessary to accurately scope the dimensions of the fugitive methane problem. For this reason, conclusions should not be drawn about total leakage based on these preliminary, localized reports. Drawing conclusions from such results would be like trying to draw an elephant after touching two small sections of the animal’s skin: the picture is unlikely to be accurate. In the coming months, ongoing work by the NOAA/UC team, as well as by Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and other academic and industry partners, will provide a far more systematic view that will greatly increase our understanding of the fugitive methane issue, though additional studies will still be needed to fully resolve the picture. What follows is a briefing on the fugitive methane issue, including the range of measurements currently underway and the need for rigorous data collection along the entire natural gas supply chain.

Why methane leakage matters. Natural gas, which is mostly methane, burns with fewer carbon dioxide emissions than other fossil fuels. However, when uncombusted methane leaks into the atmosphere from wells, pipelines and storage facilities, it acts as a powerful greenhouse gas with enormous implications for global climate change due to its short-term potency: Over a 20-year time frame, each pound of methane is 72 times more powerful at increasing the retention of heat in the atmosphere than a pound of carbon dioxide. Based on EPA’s projections, if we could drastically reduce global emissions of short-term climate forcers such as methane and fluorinated gases over the next 20 years, we could slow the increase in net radiative forcing (heating of the atmosphere) by one third or more.

Fugitive methane emissions from natural gas production, transportation and distribution are the single largest U.S. source of short-term climate forcing gases. The EPA estimates that 2.3% of total natural gas production is lost to leakage, but this estimate, based on early 1990’s data, is sorely in need of updating. The industry claims a leakage rate of about 1.6%. Cornell University professor Robert Howarth has estimated that total fugitive emissions of 3.6 to 7.9% over the lifetime of a well.

To determine the true parameters of the problem, EDF is working with diverse academic partners including the University of Texas at Austin, the NOAA/UC scientists and dozens of industry partners on direct measurements of fugitive emissions from the U.S. natural gas supply chain. The initiative is comprised of a series of more than ten studies that will analyze emissions from the production, gathering, processing, long-distance transmission and local distribution of natural gas, and will gather data on the use of natural gas in the transportation sector. In addition to analyzing industry data, the participants are collecting field measurements at facilities across the country. The researchers leading these studies expect to submit the first of these studies for publication in February 2013, with the others to be submitted over the course of the year. Read More »

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