By David Kligman
PETALUMA — If you’re in Sonoma County, don’t be surprised to see this Ford Escape driving about 15 miles an hour as it hugs the side of the road.
At the wheel is PG&Es Brian Lincoln. He’s among the first employees trained to operate one of six SUVs equipped with a new tool that many believe will revolutionize the way natural gas leaks are detected.
After more than a year of testing, PG&E is now rolling out the Picarro Surveyor. Currents drove with Lincoln on just his third day surveying using the new technology, which PG&E co-developed with scientists from Picarro.
“This is like NASA technology, go-to-the-moon type of technology,” said Bob Stotler, PG&E gas operations superintendent. “We will find more leaks with the technology, and that’s what we want to do is find leaks and fix leaks so that we can provide a safe and reliable natural gas system for our employees and our customers.”
As the PG&E gas fieldman drives, a stainless steel sensing tube mounted on the front of the car sucks in air while the surveyor in the trunk analyzes the molecules. An anemometer on top of the vehicle measures wind speed.
iPad displays potential leaks
An iPad on the dashboard almost instantly displays a teal bubble if there’s a potential leak. The technology is 1,000 times more sensitive than traditional leak detection equipment.
Developed with Silicon Valley scientists at a company called Picarro, PG&E is the world’s first utility to use this technology to find gas leaks.
While the iPad displays a map, wind speed and any possible leak indications, Lincoln’s job is to focus solely on driving. He needs to stay as close to the side of the road to get an accurate read on the underground gas pipeline — about three feet to the right of the vehicle.”
Driving close to the side of the road means the gas surveyor has to carefully navigate brush, signs, mailboxes and other potential obstacles.
On this four-mile stretch of busy highway near Petaluma, four potential leaks were discovered. The information is instantly transmitted to a PG&E gas team that will analyze the data, determine if there’s actually a leak and if so whether repairs are needed.
Technology will help restore customers’ faith
Those working on the rollout say the technology will help restore customers’ faith in PG&E.
“I truly believe that PG&E adopting this technology and embracing it and being a forefront leader in the industry that it is a true testimony that that’s our goal and we want to prove that to our customers,” Stotler said.
Surveying has begun in Sacramento, Hayward, Concord, Stockton and here in Sonoma County.
If you’re still not sure you’re seeing one of the gas-surveying SUVs, you can tell by the PG&E logo and one simple message printed on the car that demonstrates the company’s commitment to modernizing its gas pipeline system: “Bringing Safety to Your Street.”
Email David Kligman at David.Kligman@pge.com.