This Google Car Detects Natural Gas Leaks in Your Neighborhood

The search giant and the Environmental Defense Fund team up to map emissions of a potent greenhouse gas.

(Photo: Jonathan Alcorn/Reuters)

Kristine Wong is a regular contributor to TakePart and a multimedia journalist who reports on energy, the environment, sustainable business, and food.

Google Maps Street View cars are mapping the world. Now they’re helping save it from climate change too.

A pilot project sponsored by Google, the Environmental Defense Fund, and Colorado State University has equipped the search giant’s ubiquitous vehicles with methane sensors to detect and then map leaks from natural gas pipelines that run under city streets. 

Natural gas contains methane, a potent greenhouse gas that traps 120 times more heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. The largest source of methane in the United States is leaking natural gas pipes.

The first phase of the project has mapped natural gas leaks in Boston and Indianapolis and on New York’s Staten Island. (EDF has published interactive maps of the leaks in those cities.)

“It’s a tool that gives a new level of resolution and information to a problem that used to be too difficult, slow, or expensive for utilities to figure out,” said Jon Coifman, an EDF spokesman.

By law, most utilities are only required to monitor natural gas pipes for big leaks that pose a safety risk, given that it has been too costly and labor-intensive to track small ones. But collectively, all those tiny fissures in pipelines that let methane escape add up to a big global warming problem.  

The study deployed two Google Maps Street View cars and a vehicle from Colorado State University. All were decked out with methane sensors that analyzed the concentration of the gas in the air, while the sensors on the CSU car detected whether the methane was from a fossil fuel source or a biological one, such as a landfill or cow manure.

“We didn’t find a single leak that was a risk from a safety standpoint,” said Coifman. “This confirms that there weren’t that many of those leaks to begin with and that the utilities are doing a pretty good job.”

Yet the team found thousands of smaller leaks that contribute to climate change, according to Coifman.

“While they’re not cause for a safety alarm, they continue to leak methane in the atmosphere every day,” he said. “Those leaks are not being repaired as aggressively as they should be.”

The project found 2,000 leaks in Boston—where more than half the natural gas pipeline system is over 50 years old. Staten Island had 1,000 leaks. Only five leaks were detected in Indianapolis, thanks to a recently upgraded pipeline system.

While most utilities in the U.S. may not be responsible for keeping tabs on such leaks now, they might be in the future.

Massachusetts in July passed a law requiring utilities to identify and set a time line for repairing small leaks. One of Massachusetts’s U.S. senators, Ed Markey, is pushing for federal legislation that would speed up the repair and replacement of leaky pipes with a revolving loan fund for states.

So how can cities bring the Google cars to their streets?

Coifman said it’s too early to put a price tag on how much it would cost utilities, but the partnership is continuing to map more locations, with Southern California up next. You can nominate your city for methane mapping on the EDF website.

To expand the reach of the project, the methane mapping team plans to make public the algorithm used to detect the leaks.

“This is a tool that can provide a lot more information to utilities than their monitoring technology gives them today,” said Coifman. “We’ve had a huge amount of interest on ways to use this from the public and private sector that’s interested to see what this means for their business.”

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