Laying the Groundwork for a Successful Aerial Methane Mapping Program

Aerial View of suburb

Recent research supporting the case for reducing methane emissions has resulted in government mandates to mitigate gas utility methane emissions. According to the Environmental Defense Fund, “Methane has more than 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide over the first 20 years after it reaches the atmosphere.” Consequently, methane reduction is now a top priority for gas utilities. 

Leading the charge to explore and implement modern equipment and technology to accurately identify methane leaks is Southern California Gas (SoCalGas). As one of the first U.S. utilities to utilize LiDAR based methane leak detection technology, SoCalGas is trailblazing the way for other utilities to reduce their methane emissions efficiently and effectively. With the largest pipeline system in the country, spanning more than 100,000 miles over 20,000 square miles, the company’s new methane detection program is identifying a greater number of methane emissions for thorough evaluation in a shorter amount of time. According to an article by SoCalGas regarding its public Methane Emissions Map, new techn ology use by the utility is contributing to its system’s methane emission rate ranking as one of the lowest in the U.S., ranging from 0.12 percent to 0.3 percent of all gas delivered. 

For new technology to be effective at any organization, robust program management is key. A successful Aerial Methane Mapping (AMM) program implementation requires extensive leadership experience and technology knowledge, utility understanding of the technology, and common goals and collaboration among the utility departments and various business processes, in conjunction with existing processes and workflows to account for intricate flight planning.

AMM and Advantages for Utilities

AMM is emerging as a more efficient and accurate method for utilities to associate methane detections to potential gas leaks from their systems or other possible sources than using traditional equipment and practices. An AMM program pairs LiDAR based methane detection technology with GIS based spatial awareness of the utility assets and customers to detect and locate methane emission sources near utility pipelines, identifying customer and system leaks. The resulting methane plume imagery, through aerial scans of laser waves, aid utilities in determining the location of the emission source – helping utilities to investigate the cause of the emission and the severity of the potential leak. 

Recent government regulations have brought business need to the forefront by requiring gas utilities to reduce their methane emissions, as one effort in a larger initiative, to decrease Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions. One such regulation, Senate Bill No. 1371, requires California gas utilities to reduce gas leaks through the establishment and requirement of leak survey best practices and the use of advanced technology to identify potential leaks, with the objects of increasing consumer safety and reducing air pollution and GHGs.

This mandate prompted SoCalGas to pilot the use of LIDAR based methane detection technology – with success.

SoCalGas’s AMM Initiative 

As part of its effort to reduce methane emissions by 40% by 2025, SoCalGas pursued an Aerial Methane Mapping Program to identify potential methane leaks from their pipelines and customer facilities. Using Lidar based methane leak detection technology in tandem with the spatial awareness capabilities of GIS, SoCalGas is identifying leaks quicker, improving consumer safety, and increasing energy efficiency at customer facilities while remaining in compliance with government mandates. Deploying the new methane detection technology in addition to other ongoing efforts to reduce emissions, SoCalGas’s Aerial Methane Mapping Research Update estimates that methane emissions from its distribution system will be reduced annually by 22,000 MCF, including an additional 63,000 MCF from its downstream emissions.

Breaking Down the Program Business Process

Via helicopter flights, aerial data, including images and scans, is collected in real-time, providing SoCalGas with up-to-date methane gas leak detections. The GIS helps determine the proximity of potential leaks to utility assets or services for proper leak investigation assignment. To do this, the GIS uses automation developed for SoCalGas’s AMM program, enabling the utility to spatially relate the collected methane leak information to either customers or high pressure or medium pressure assets based on predetermined buffer zones. The GIS recommends leak investigation assignments to the utility contingent on this data. If the identified emission is within proximity to a SoCalGas customer, then the emission assignment is recommended to the customer service sector – Customer Emissions. If the plume is not near a customer and is within a certain proximity of a SoCalGas asset, then the emission may be associated with gas distribution or gas operations and recommended to be assigned to Asset Emissions.

Further analysis using ArcGIS Portal viewers and/or Google Earth to perform visual inspection helps to verify whether the detected emissions are from SoCalGas assets or from unrelated, nearby objects leaking methane, such as parked cars or customer appliances. SoCalGas then assigns the leak order to the appropriate department for leak investigation. 

Leak investigation orders are processed through separate lifecycles and workflows dependent on whether the orders are assigned to Customer Emissions or Asset Emissions. If an emission is detected near a customer, then Customer Emissions determines if incomplete combustion from a house appliance is the cause of the emission and whether the issue requires a temporary or permanent fix. Asset Emissions investigates emissions near distribution pipes and gas assets to verify the leaks and determine the grades of the leaks (1,2, or 3). Following the investigations, the orders are processed through existing SoCalGas remediation procedures. 

Based on historical data of orders generated from flight per square mile of mains and services, and by using the GIS to generate square miles of assets within the area to be flown, SoCalGas estimates the orders for each group in advance to facilitate resource planning. Investigation leads generated from the program are tracked within a centralized tracking tool, and the results are monitored and analyzed using a program dashboard.

LiDAR flights are scheduled sufficiently in advance to allow time for flight approvals and permission processes. Approval is granted for each flight by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) when scheduled and an additional time as the flight date draws nearer. For its pilot project, SoCalGas started with only one flight per week and gradually increased the frequency of those flights as the data provided confidence in the process. Taking the time to develop and identify successful business processes and workflows during the pilot project enabled SoCalGas to now schedule flights out a year in advance and accurately anticipate leak investigation workloads.

Successful Program Elements

To successfully replicate SoCalGas’s AMM program, utilities will require solid program management with expansive leadership experience to merge objectives from multiple departments such as IT, Distribution Project Management, Gas Ops, and Customer Service into one vision; an understanding of AMM technology and goals to be achieved from program implementation; coordination among different business processes that use the AMM data; and advance planning for LiDAR flights to manage workload.

The Program Implementation Manager

The AMM program implementation manager’s role is not only to clarify the utility’s vision and create the implementation roadmap, but also to identify and unite the diverse stakeholders in one common goal, strategy, and vision and to maintain those commitments throughout the implementation phase. To successfully unify the various departments with common objectives, it is crucial the manager has extensive leadership experience and the ability to “speak the languages” of the various divisions which enables the manager to address each group’s concerns and expectations. As implementing an AMM program is a multifaceted initiative, knowledge of real-world utility operations and confidence in managing teams from across the organization are necessities to aid in keeping various departments aligned to their common goal. 

Also, employing an implementation manager with preexisting knowledge of the technology and background will save the utility on time, resources, and training costs as implementation can begin immediately.

The Technology

Relatively new to the market, AMM technology requires utilities to look outside of their standard processes. It is crucial that utilities conduct research to understand their companies’ technology needs and come to a consensus on the technology solution. To develop their business requirements, utilities must understand what their system requirements are and recognize where their current gaps are in the existing technology. Doing so allows utilities to fully leverage their current technology where possible. Following the selection of the technology, the utility must determine which departments will be responsible for which aspects of the technology, e.g., who will own the data, who will own the system, etc.

The utility must also determine which tracking technology/tool will be used to house the data. The amount and complexity of the data should be considerations when choosing a tracking tool, as the tool must have the capacity to support the data. Developing the requirements and building the design and architecture of the tool could require a year or more to develop; planning for the tracking technology sufficiently in advance produces the most streamlined implementation process. 

Effective Collaboration and Planning

Inadequate communication and planning are often the culprits behind project failures. Coordination between different business processes, departments, teams, and field crews that separately handle the data is crucial to achieve a common goal since the data gathered must satisfy the requirements for all processes, strategies, tools, and applications. The different business processes must also be sufficiently comprehensive to distinguish one workflow from the other. As SoCalGas leak order investigation processes differ based on whether the emission is from a customer facility or a utility pipe, it was critical that the involved departments communicated and worked collaboratively to understand the responsibilities of each group, prevent workflow overlap, and optimize processes. 

For an AMM program using LiDAR based methane leak detection technology, flight planning is an important criterion in planning for future workload. GIS can be used to help calculate the workload results for each individual flight, enabling the team to staff properly for future work. Without scheduled flights, workload cannot be anticipated. 

Adequate time in the program schedule must be allotted for the flight planning processes, as these can be lengthy. The aerial flights will require coordination with local and national government divisions for flight approvals and permissions; delayed flights will disrupt the program schedule and workload. 

Benefits of a Successful AMM Program

Currently, most utilities employ a leak survey cycle to survey gas leaks – transmission pipelines are inspected each year and medium pressure pipes are inspected every five. Methane emissions are likely escaping intermittently between these inspections, leaving utilities susceptible to pipeline safety incidents as well as incapable of meeting climate goals and regulations. 

Implementing an AMM program is a more effective method to monitor widespread assets and pipelines for leaks. Utilities can acquire methane emission data quicker to pinpoint possible leaks, without waiting year(s) for traditional, walking leak surveys to be performed. If high-risk leaks are identified, then utilities can address those repairs immediately. In addition to expediting the leak survey process, reducing emissions from customer facilities and pipelines also improves the energy efficiency of the utility and the customer alike.