The laser beam technology is made by Picarro, and it operates out of the trunk of a Chevy Volt. A stainless steel pipe below the front bumper takes in air samples, and the device is able to detect whether methane in the air is coming from a natural gas pipeline or from methane from decaying organic matter, such as a landfill. GPS technology provides real-time maps to pinpoint the location of the leak. Other sensors are able to determine wind speed and direction.
PG&E executives say by using the new technology, driving up and down streets, it eventually will be able to do in one year what currently takes five years to do using hand-held detection devices. It also will provide PG&E a new tool to do detection testing of its 44,000 miles of natural gas distribution lines and the small service lines that feed gas into individual residences.
A controlled test was conducted at Picarro's parking lot Monday to show how the device detected gas leaking from two hoses. As the car drove around, the leaks and their magnitude appeared real-time on a Google Street map and on a Google Earth map.
PG&E is testing two vehicles. It has plans to deploy a fleet of 25 of them. Neither PG&E nor Picarro would put a dollar figure on the cost of each device.
PG&E Executive Vice President of Gas Operations Nick Stavropoulos said the cost would not be passed along to customers.
"We'll be able to have a five-fold increase at probably no additional cost, and probably less cost, than it takes to do leak surveys now over a five-year period of time," Stavropoulos said.
Congressman Mike Honda, D-Calif., was impressed.
"This technology is going to be important to share and put out so that people have some confidence in what's going on," he said.