Google is finding that having specialized cars on the road for its popular Google Street View service can also be tweaked for public benefit.
The cars used for the tech giant’s service were equipped with methane detectors in 2013, and that data is starting to make a difference.
Methane detectors have been installed in the trunks of Google street view cars in an attempt to find old and leaking pipes which are used to natural gas. So far, the fitted cars have been used to detect leaks in Boston, Burlington, Chicago, Dallas, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Los Angeles, Mesa, Pittsburgh, Staten Island, and Syracuse. The project is being funded by U.S.-based advocacy group Environmental Defense Fund.
“We don’t have a good numbers about how much methane emissions from cities contribute to the overall US anthropogenic natural gas footprint. One of the reasons we’re focusing on methane leaks in cities is that we can actually do something about them,” says Joseph von Fischer, a biology professor at Colorado State, to Seeker.
At about $2-million per square mile, pipes are extremely expensive to replace. Due to these prohibitive cost most companies choose to let them be and deteriorate and leak methane which is one of the largest producers of greenhouse gasses. Pipes are only fixed when they become dangerous.
The process with Google Street View cars works by sucking in air in the surrounding area through the front bumper and running it through tubes until it reaches the methane detector in the trunk. It is then run through infrared lasers, and methane absorbs the radiation and is measured. Data collected is then given GPS coordinates and is mapped out. This process occurs 2,000 times per minute and routes are re-driven multiple times to avoid any discrepancies. Looking at the maps provided, the worst areas appear to be Boston, Staten Island, and Syracuse.
“The cities where we tested a new way to measure natural gas leaks are a cross-section of America’s urban geography. The maps underscore the persistent and widespread challenge of leaks. They also show the results when utilities and regulators dedicate resources to fix the problem. Beyond this pilot project, EDF hopes that utilities will publish their own maps to show where they have made repairs and where new leaks are found,” reads the EDF website.
Boston was found to have one methane leaking pipe every for every mile of pipe, pipes mostly being more than 50 years old. Chicago had one leak every three miles on average, most of the pipes being made of cast iron, a corrosive material. Indianapolis fared much better (but still bad) with one leak every 200 miles.
In 2016 New Jersey’s’ Public Service Electric & Gas (PSEG) paired up with EDF and Google to find leaks. A project then began to replace leaking pipes, the project was given a budget of over $900 million USD. When they were given the data, it showed that areas which PSEG had thought were problematic were actually off from what Google had collected. A project is now underway to replace over 510 miles of old pipes before 2018.