If you saw one rolling through the neighborhood, you might mistake it for a Google maps car, but for more than a year and a half, PG&E has been cruising for gas leaks, using Ford Explorers that are actually super-sensitive, gas detection vehicles.
Before hitting the road for a demonstration, a PG&E technician opened a canister, releasing tiny amounts of natural gas. The leak shows up as a blue plume on a specialized tablet, which registers and records the leak's location and footprint.
Sumeet Singh is vice president of risk management for PG&E's gas operations. He says the utility began testing the technology during the 2014 Napa earthquake to help prevent the kind of fires that broke out after Loma Prieta.
"It's a thousand times more sensitive than anything that exists on the market today," Singh said.
And now engineers at Santa Clara based Picarro are miniaturizing the technology even further. A new backpack system measures parts per billion in the air every second It replaces hand held detectors that literally have to be placed directly on a pipe.
"It's amazing, it's the equivalent of having Charlie Chaplin walking with his stick what the utilities in the world are doing today," says CEO Alex Balkanski.
He believes the advanced technology will not only increase safety at industrial sites nationwide, but could also have a significant impact on the environment and greenhouse gasses.
"You can't fix what you don't measure. So measure it, quantify it and address societal issues of greenhouse gas and global warming," he says.
And they believe preventing clouds of natural gas will soon hinge on cloud computing. At PG&E's command center, data is channeled through powerful software. Sumeet Singh says the ultimate goal is not just to learn where leaks are happening, but predict what's ahead.
"Where do we think leaks are going to happen and go after focusing on those assets before leaks even take place," says Singh.
Written and produced by Tim Didion.