New satellite technology helps improve response to Piedmont Natural Gas leaks

CHARLOTTE — When it comes to large, dangerous gas leaks, often someone smells them, calls them in and you’ll see an emergency response.

However, along our entire natural gas system there are also constant risks of small leaks.

The leaks are invisible and odorless. They are often too small to pose an urgent threat.

Piedmont Natural Gas workers check parts of the system on the company’s maintenance walkthrough every three to five years.

Piedmont Natural Gas President Sasha Weintraub said the company is investing in a better, faster satellite detection system with the help of a $1 million Department of Energy grant.

“It’s an opportunity not just for the Piedmont system, but for the entire supply chain of natural gas to eliminate these methane leaks,” he said.

Lauren Crowe, the managing director of natural gas business transformation and automation, said the technology works through a combination of infrared imaging and AI data analysis focused on finding the primary component of natural gas, methane, along the system.

“The sun will reflect off the earth, bounce back up. Spectral signatures will hit the satellite. The satellite will pick up the imagery that’s then delivered to a software company who processes the imagery that’s able to detect the methane in that shortwave infrared band,” she said.

The system is already underway in North Carolina where Crowe said it’s been detecting several small leaks around homes, apartments, and business meters. Those are typically connected to fuel furnaces, water heaters, and other gas appliances.

With the new detection technology, Crowe said Piedmont Natural Gas can catalog the leaks, rank their urgency, and respond within days.

“Imagine tasking a satellite on Thursday. Data is delivered on a Monday. We’ve operationalized our field response on a Tuesday and within five to 10 days, we’re responding to all those methane indications,” she said.

Given the size of these leaks, Piedmont Natural Gas reiterates the concern is about greenhouse gas emissions rather than customer safety or energy efficiency.

Methane is the second most abundant greenhouse gas in the atmosphere behind carbon dioxide. Given its size and chemical properties, it’s 28 times more powerful when it comes to heating the atmosphere.

“Even if just a little bit of the methane leaks before it gets [to a power plant or furnace] then it actually warms the climate much more than that same amount of greenhouse gas would have if it just gets burned into CO2,” said Jack Scheff, professor of Geography at UNC Charlotte.

That’s why small emissions of methane add up quickly.

According to Piedmont Natural Gas, the current system-wide leak rate is 0.09%. It’s the equivalent of 313,000 tons of CO2 which is like 802,390,777 miles driven by an average gas-powered vehicle, according to the EPA’s greenhouse gas calculator.

Using this technology, Weintraub said Piedmont Natural Gas can decrease the backlog of leaks and as it expands to the entire multi-state Piedmont system.

He said it can help the company reduce its net emissions as close to zero as possible while paving the way for future use among others in the natural gas industry.

“It’s an opportunity not just for the Piedmont system, but for the entire supply chain of natural gas to eliminate these methane leaks,” he said.

At the same time, the Biden Administration, through legislation, such as the Inflation Reduction Act, is working to discourage natural gas use in homes by promoting electrification of heating and cooking.

Environmental advocates argue that electric appliances are more energy efficient and don’t require natural gas on-site, therefore reducing both greenhouse gas emissions and a potential source for a methane leak.

VIDEO: If your home uses natural gas, here’s how to ensure it’s safe

Michelle Alfini

Michelle Alfini, wsoctv.com

Michelle is a climate reporter for Channel 9.