Google and the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) have teamed up to map natural gas leaks under city streets, already revealing interactive maps showing leaks beneath the streets of Boston, Indianapolis and New York City’s Staten Island.
The maps are the first phase of a pilot project developed using specially equipped Google Street View mapping cars — under a partnership between EDF and Google Earth Outreach — to explore and understand the potential of new sensing and analytical technologies to measure environmental indicators in ways that have thus far been difficult or impossible.
EDF worked closely with several utilities to validate the findings, which offer a way for both system operators and regulators to focus and accelerate upgrades.
“New technology has given us vastly greater ability to make environmental data available for everyone to see, and to use that information to solve environmental problems by making better decisions,” said EDF Chief Scientist Steven Hamburg. “Methane leaks are a pervasive challenge throughout the natural gas industry. This is an ideal chance to put new science to work and to solve a major real-world challenge.”
Natural gas utilities routinely monitor their systems for safety, as required by state and federal regulations, but current methods involve specialized personnel and equipment, and until now it has been difficult to determine how much gas is escaping from a given a leak. By revealing how much gas is escaping, the Google technology can illustrate the leak’s true scale, accelerating natural gas pipeline replacement to reduce leaks while enhancing safety and reliability.
The maps were created using three Google Street View cars specially equipped with sophisticated methane sensing technology. EDF and researchers at Colorado State University spent two years experimenting with the system and developing analytical tools to not only locate, but also accurately assess, the amount of gas escaping from even small leaks detected amid 15 million individual readings collected over thousands of miles of roadway.
Google Earth Outreach and EDF will be mapping methane leaks in more cities as part of the current project, and they are exploring the potential of mapping other air pollutants in the future.