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PG&E Adapts Space-Age Technology to NatGas Pipeline Safety Efforts

In an attempt to reverse negative perceptions surrounding its natural gas transmission/distribution pipeline system, San Francisco-based Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E) plans to integrate technology advancements into its ongoing efforts to upgrade its network.

The integration of new technology is part of the utility's commitment, according to PG&E Vice President Sumeet Singh, who handles gas operations asset and risk management.

Last year PG&E tested and deployed more than 30 advanced tools, and it intends to integrate several into its pipeline enhancement programs, under close scrutiny by regulators since the 2010 tragedy in San Bruno, CA.

PG&E's operations research and development team has worked with various entities, including the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, to advance gas leak detection work.

Technology deployed inside the Mars Rover to detect methane leaks has been adapted and tested by PG&E as a laser-based technology. It is supposed to allow the utility to pinpoint leaks in its system more accurately and efficiently, said a spokesperson.

“The out-of-this-world technology helps guide PG&E crews using a tablet interface to identify possible leak locations, fast-tracking their ability to repair leaks.” A final product is expected to be available later this year.

There are also advances in ways to examine the inside and exterior of pipelines without interrupting service and with greater levels of detail and accuracy, according to PG&E's gas system operators. Ideally, the new technologies will help "transform utilities into more predictive and proactive operators" by providing more detailed inspections that take less time and are more precise.

First developed for the dental industry, PG&E has adapted the 3D Toolbox, which works like a digital camera, capturing three-dimensional images of a pipe, identifying and measuring cracks, dents and corrosion. "With a click, it captures an image and provides measurements, giving real-time information about the condition of pipeline surfaces," PG&E said.

The equipment allows the utility to get detailed images of pipelines; within seconds images are captured and multiple views can be stitched together in a matter of minutes, according to the utility. This device is already being fully deployed.

PG&E also has smart pigs that travel over miles of pipeline segments without interrupting gas flows. In addition, the utility has deployed miniature robots, about the size of a toy car, to inspect the outer portion of a pipe without having to dig in the ground above the buried lines.

"Working alongside some of the best scientific minds in the world, we're developing new predictive capabilities about natural gas operations with the intelligence fathered by these tools," said Singh.

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