The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and San Francisco-based Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E) this month are claiming to have marked a first nationally in a competition to advance methane detection technology.

PG&E engineers said their utility is the first U.S. energy company to pilot test an advanced methane detection device developed for the “methane detectors challenge” (MDC), a partnership among EDF, oil/gas companies and distributors, U.S.-based technology developers, and other experts.

The combination utility, often maligned on natural gas safety issues after its San Bruno transmission pipeline explosion six years ago, last month completed the installation of a pilot test technology for continuously monitoring for unplanned methane releases at a PG&E natural gas storage facility in Northern California.

“Continuous 24-hour monitoring offered by this technology could cut the time it takes to detect leaks from months to hours,” a PG&E utility spokesperson said. “This would lead to improved environmental performance and operational efficiency of gas infrastructure.”

About 25% of today’s global warming is driven by emissions of methane, according to various climate change and governmental sources. “By shifting from episodic to continuous monitoring (using the new technology), PG&E will be able to detect leaks from its natural gas storage facility and repair them quickly, to mitigate contributions to climate change and air pollution, while saving money,” an EDF spokesperson said.

According to EDF and PG&E officials, continuous 24-hour monitoring is offered by this new technology, and they contend that it “could cut the time it takes to detect leaks from months to hours.” The technology also could lead to improved environmental performance and operational efficiency of gas infrastructure, officials said.

Developed by Acutect Inc., the self-described low-cost laser technology being piloted by PG&E was selected as one of 20 submissions received as part of the detector challenge,which aims to “catalyze and bring to market” new technologies that quickly detect methane leaks. “By working with EDF’s oil, gas and utility partners, Acutect will gain insight and data about how its solar-powered design performs under field conditions,” the EDF spokesperson said..

The pilot conducted by PG&E is slated to study the reliability, accuracy and durability of the technology over three months in what its officials said would be “a true field setting.”

For a number of years, EDF and various parts of the oil/gas industry have reacted to the fact that methane is a the key component of natural gas, and varying with the source of the data is emitted across the U.S. oil and gas supply chain at a rates of more than 9.8 million metric tons annually. EDF’s control efforts have focused on technologies that continuously detect methane emissions as a way to not only improve air quality and operational efficiency, but also recapture resources that would otherwise be wasted.

The idea for both the environmental groups and industry operators is to reduce contributions to climate change. About 25% of today’s global warming is driven by emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, according to EDF.

“At PG&E, we believe that climate change is, in fact, a reality and we maintain a steadfast conviction to doing all we can to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” said Jim Howe, senior director for gas regulatory issues. “California has set clear goals regarding emissions reductions, which PG&E proudly supports and is actively working to help achieve.

“This work with EDF and innovative methane detection technologies will be instrumental to this effort as well as our support of industry partners as they set and achieve their own emissions reductions goals.”

To date, Acutect’s technology has only been in test scenarios. Initially combining a Chinese manufacturer of laser-based methane detection components and a team of product development engineers formerly at Carnegie-Mellon who formed SenSevere LLC, the technology successfully made it through third party testing, and Acutect is now in licensing negotiations with a well-established supplier of industrial sensing solutions, according to company officials, who are eyeing a national market.

“The U.S. oil and gas industry loses about $2 billion of natural gas a year from leaks at dispersed sites, much of them undetected for months due to lack of continuous monitoring,” said Aileen Nowlan, manager of the Methane Detectors Challenge that now involves more than 75 U.S companies. “By building bridges between innovators and customers that need scalable solutions, EDF is accelerating technologies that can help the oil and gas industry improve operations and forging solutions that build safer communities and let the planet thrive.”