This year, Peoples Gas is working to cut its methane emissions by 50 percent within the city limits of Pittsburgh. The utility hopes to accomplish this by using advanced leak detection instrumentation and a new methodology developed by the Environmental Defense Fund and Google Earth Outreach to map and measure natural gas leaks issuing from underground pipes.
Peoples will use the data to prioritize its upgrade schedule, first targeting the 20 percent most serious leaks. By repairing those leaks, the utility hopes to first reduce 50 percent of its overall emissions. If successful, this strategy will reduce leakage more efficiently, achieving the greatest climate benefits at a faster pace.
Methane is a greenhouse gas with roughly 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide during the first 20 years it is in the atmosphere. It is also the main component of natural gas. Reducing methane leaks has been a priority for Governor Tom Wolf, in his effort to ensure that Pennsylvania’s oil and gas sector is safer, cleaner and more competitive. These environmental goals are mirrored by Pittsburgh Mayor William Peduto and the city’s ambitious goals, which are outlined in Pittsburgh’s Climate Action Plan 3.0 that was adopted in May 2018.
According to EDF President Fred Krupp, “Peoples Gas, the City of Pittsburgh, and the state of Pennsylvania’s embrace of new technologies and smarter strategies to tackle the climate challenge is a bold example for others to follow.”
Under this new commitment, “the first of its kind by a utility,” Peoples and EDF will use highly sensitive leak detection sensors and advanced data analytics developed in partnership with Google and scientists at Colorado State University. The majority of methane detection systems can only detect in parts per million. The new equipment can measure in parts per billion. Leaks will be mapped throughout 2019 using a laser-based methane analyzer installed on a Peoples survey vehicle. The vehicle will survey the approximate 950 miles of pipes in Pittsburgh. Depending upon the program’s success, this technology could then be used in the future, assessing methane releases across Peoples’s full 15,000 mile Pennsylvania pipeline system. Roughly 46 percent of the pipes operated by Peoples are more than 50 years old.
This program is in addition to the utility’s ongoing and continuous pipeline integrity program for methane detection and line repair. Peoples has reached out into its community to work with other partners on these efforts, including Carnegie Mellon University.
Its leak reduction programs also run in tandem with the company’s Long Term Infrastructure Improvement Plan. The LTIIP is a strategic initiative aimed at replacing all the company’s aging pipeline that could pose a future risk. In 2018 alone, Peoples replaced 146 miles of pipe. One way to grasp the scale of this effort is to visualize all this mileage laid end to end. If this were done, the single pipe would stretch roughly from Pittsburgh to Harrisburg. In 2019, the company plans on investing over $200 million in its pipelines and related facilities.
The great majority of new pipes will be constructed of plastic. During the past 30 years, plastic pipe has predominated in gas utility distribution systems operating at less than 100 pounds of pressure. Plastic pipe is corrosion-resistant, easy to transport and costs less to install. It can also often be inserted into existing lines or through soil without traditional trenching along its entire route. Perhaps its greatest advantage though, is its flexibility. It’s easy for the general public to see and understand how infrastructure like roads and bridges are degraded by the weather. But pipelines are as well, particularly by the freeze and thaw cycle. Every season when the earth freezes and thaws, the ground flexes. The pipes within the earth flex with it. If metal pipes have been scraped by any type of digging, water damage or land shifting from either overhead construction or natural causes, they may be marred and therefore prone to corrosion. Over the years and even decades, pipes may greatly weaken at those points. Flexible plastic piping is the best long-term solution to leaks.
Peoples has also had the advantage of discontinuing many aging pipelines. When the utility acquired Pittsburgh’s Equitable Gas Company in 2013, it began to study the redundancy of pipelines beneath the city’s streets. It systematically discontinued the most aging pipes, thus not paying for needless construction and restoration costs to the benefit of its ratepayers.
This new, methane reduction initiative with the EDF was launched in January of this year in Pittsburgh. At that event, Gov. Wolf signed an executive order that Pennsylvania will work to reduce statewide greenhouse gas emissions 26 percent by 2025 and 80 percent by 2050. He noted that the partnership between Peoples and the Environmental Defense Fund exemplifies how industries, environmental agencies and governments can constructively collaborate to address issues. He further stated that “protecting our environment and growing our economy are not conflicting goals and that doing one actually makes the other possible.”
Local officials in Pittsburgh cite this same philosophy as one of the foundation pillars upon which Pittsburgh built its new economy following the collapse of its steel industry decades earlier.
EDF’s engagement with Peoples is supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies through the America’s Pledge Initiative. Acting on the 10 high-impact opportunity areas identified in its America’s Pledge report, including methane leak detection and repair, Bloomberg Philanthropies is investing in pilot efforts such as EDF’s work in Pittsburgh, along with programs to curb super-polluting gases known as hydrofluorocarbons, and initiatives to spur the market for electric vehicles.
Founded in 1916, the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry is the state's largest broad-based business association, with its membership comprising businesses of all sizes and across all industry sectors. The PA Chamber is The Statewide Voice of BusinessTM.