How Fast is Fast Enough to Solve a Challenge Like Methane?

Methane Detectors Challenge testBill Gates, in an interview with The Atlantic, reminded us that if Thomas Edison were alive today, he’d probably recognize a lot of our energy infrastructure – batteries and most coal plants, for example. Gates argued in the interview that we need to drastically speed up the pace of innovation to bring our energy infrastructure out of the Victorian era. But how do we change how we make and use energy? It touches everything we do, but in less than a decade we will be living, working, and traveling differently.

That’s where I –and EDF – come in.  I joined EDF this fall after working as a lawyer, consultant and accelerator for business-social collaborations, and I’ve found that it takes all kinds of skills and experiences to set ambitious targets and turn the impossible into the inevitable. From energy retrofits for churches to starting a clean energy incubator with global energy companies, I’ve attacked the challenge of achieving a low-carbon future from many angles. I’ve been drawing on all of that experience since joining EDF, at what’s proving to be an exciting time for climate change leadership.

Methane: a challenge we have to tackle today

One area where we know we have to innovate – like people stranded on a desert island – is methane emissions from oil and gas. Methane is the most powerful greenhouse gas that almost no one has heard of. And more importantly from a climate perspective, methane emissions from the oil and gas industry are cheap to eliminate, if you can find them. The recently-announced regulations on methane emissions from the oil and gas industry won’t take us all the way to the 40-45% reduction in methane emissions the administration has set as a priority. We need action at hundreds of thousands of oil and gas facilities, and that’s just for U.S. onshore oil and gas. Worldwide, methane leaks amount to 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2012, or the equivalent of 40% of the total CO2 emissions from burning coal.

How do you innovate fast enough to attack this challenge? One approach we at EDF have taken with the Methane Detectors Challenge is to identify a need – invisible methane leaks – and envision a tool that didn’t yet exist that could enable the action we need – operators finding and fixing leaks faster. The ultimate goal is to make tools like that a reality, and bring to market continuous methane detection systems that are so affordable they can be deployed throughout the oil and gas supply chain.15degrees_600

Pilot partnerships

Last week in Houston we brought together eight oil and gas operators, and other partners in the Challenge. It’s been a long journey to get here: the meeting followed eight weeks of field testing of four promising technologies, and before that, nearly two years of refining specifications and screening technologies. Now, with the results of field testing in hand, we are moving to pilot a couple of the systems with oil and gas operator teams. This is a new role for a 50-year-old environmental organization. It feels fast –we’re pushing ourselves and others to make decisions and take action in months, not years.

But is it fast enough? How do you increase the pace of innovation? To find out, we are building learning into the DNA of the Challenge in a number of ways.

We’re staggering field deployment, working with collaborative operator teams, and building feedback into the process so operators and developers can make improvements immediately.  We’ll gather, anonymize, and share those insights, reevaluate, and month four should look different from month one. This process has us moving at the speed of a startup, continuously iterating and improving, keeping this unusual mix of collaborators rushing together to finalize and roll out our first pilot projects.

Environmental data for the twenty-first century

It can’t – and shouldn’t – take years for transformative action to tackle climate change. Technology is changing faster with every day that passes. Our phones and medical care are unrecognizable to our great-great-grandparents, and I hope that in a few years, our energy systems will be to us as well. We need smart grids, enabled by low-cost sensors that match energy from the wind and the sun to the ebb and flow of our daily lives. Our relatives would never have imagined we could generate street-by-street maps of methane emissions – but we’re making them, today, using Google Street View mapping cars – visualizing leaks from cast-iron pipes laid when they were young.

But unlike our grandparents, we shouldn’t wait for that transformation. And we don’t have time to. Let’s get our energy systems up to speed—in this generation.

This post originally appeared on our EDF + Business blog.

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