Two sets of wheels are helping Consumers Energy track down methane leaks to protect the planet and keep customers and communities safe.

In 2021, we rolled out two Ford Edge SUVs equipped with state-of-the-art mobile natural gas leak detection systems. The rolling labs can gather and instantly analyze methane, wind, atmospheric and GPS data in their path to find natural gas leaks and calculate their severity.

The vehicles will help us pinpoint high-risk natural gas pipes faster and more accurately and improve response to storms and natural disasters. The $4 million, five-year investment is part of our plan to achieve net zero methane emissions by 2030.

“This pilot project is another way we’re innovating to protect the planet and lead Michigan’s clean energy transformation,” said Greg Salisbury, vice president of gas engineering and supply. “We’re investing to make infrastructure and processes safer while reducing our environmental footprint.”

We are creating a cleaner natural gas future for Michigan by reducing emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Already, we’ve cut methane emissions by 15 percent. 

By reaching our net zero goal, we’ll reduce our methane emissions by more than 10,000 metric tons — that’s the equivalent of removing about 55,000 vehicles from the road for a year or preserving more than 300,000 acres of forest. 

The Ford Edges are outfitted with Picarro technology, a combination of hardware, software and data analytics that’s one thousand times more sensitive than the process we’re currently using to survey our nearly 28,000-mile distribution network.

The system mounted on each vehicle includes:

  • A parts-per-billion sensitivity gas analyzer measuring atmospheric gas composition and other tracers such as ethane.
  • An anemometer mounted on a mast for detecting wind speed, direction and wind variability.
  • Two antennas on the vehicle roof, one for the 4G wireless connectivity and one for sub-meter GPS vehicle positioning.
  •  A 4G wireless router enabling the internet connection and data transmission to and from the Picarro Cloud and Wi-Fi connection to the in-vehicle tablet.

The Ford Edges collect and analyze methane plume data as they roll down the road. They patrol geographic areas quickly, scanning for potential trouble spots and providing real-time information to spot leaks and identify areas for further investigation.

The vehicles can help confirm the conclusions of our current risk-modeling process, which considers factors such as a pipeline’s age, material and whether it’s leaking to determine if replacement is necessary and how soon. By driving past the highest-risk distribution pipelines, for example, Picarro can tell us how much methane is leaking and better prioritize replacement work.

We could also dial down the system’s sensitivity and cruise sections of the system to find spots that require immediate attention, said Grant Rivard, who is co-leading the project with Stephanie Pierce.

“For the first time, we will have quantifiable emissions data to assign to each segment of pipe — not estimates,” Rivard said. “We can proactively look for environmentally detrimental leaks that typically we might find every three years under current survey practices.”

Initially, we plan to operate the methane-detecting vehicles from Howell, providing access to large swaths of our service territory. The work is best performed at night when fewer vehicles are on the road to skew data with tailpipe emissions and under calm, low-wind conditions.

The Picarro technology can also help safely restore natural gas service more quickly following a storm or natural disaster. In the wake of the Midland flooding event in May 2020, for example, we used 25 contractors to check thousands of addresses in the region for leaks before turning the gas back on. The work was slow and arduous.

“It was all done on paper and on foot,” Rivard said. “Now, we could have one or two vehicles buzzing around for a day or two to trim data and identify areas for a foot patrol to take a closer look. The process will be streamlined, more consistent and more sensitive.”

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