Beleaguered Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E), whose natural gas pipeline system and management have gone through regulatory hell since the fatal San Bruno transmission pipeline rupture and explosion in 2010, is in the early stages of a “long journey” to become the nation’s premier gas operator, and has some technology changes in the offing that could accelerate its transformation, according to executive vice president Nick Stavropoulos.

Stavropoulos told NGI Friday that PG&E made real progress last year, but it still has “a long way to go.” The challenges will be even tougher this year as the San Francisco-based combination utility attempts complete physical and recordkeeping validations of its 50,000-mile pipeline network, including more than 6,000 miles of high pressure transmission lines, such as the segment that failed in San Bruno, he said.

PG&E and a Silicon Valley-based maker of sophisticated gas measurement equipment, Picarro Inc., recently divulged a four year-partnership that was ready to expand into an entirely new way of thinking about and performing leak detection surveys across the utility’s vast gas pipeline system (see Daily GPI, Feb. 3). The technology, which has been perfected among academics and atmospheric researchers doing arcane global climate change monitoring, has been verified by the Pipeline Research Council International and dubbed “revolutionary” by Stavropoulos.

“We’re still working with the research council to validate that this technology can do what we think it can do, and so far our expectations have been exceeded every step of the way,” said Stavropoulos.

“Overall, we are on a journey to deliver and build the safest pipeline network in the United States,” Stavropoulos said. “We have launched many initiatives on a number of fronts [which] when combined will get us there. We have made major progress in completing 160 miles of hydrostatic testing of pipelines and we’re recruiting new talent and deploying new technology, such as Picarro’s.”

Picarro’s technology is “really revolutionary” according to Stavropoulos, who said it is the biggest advance he has seen in his 33-year career in the industry. “I have seen a lot of people claiming to have the ‘better mousetrap,’ and 99% of the time it just doesn’t happen, or if it does, it is only incremental improvement. This is truly an order of magnitude change, and part of that is because it was not developed for our business. It has been completely repurposed.”

Not surprisingly, Picarro CEO Michael Woelk is even more bullish about the technology, which he said has been more than thoroughly tested by a global corps of some of the world’s leading climate scientists and researchers. He is betting that the equipment that PG&E is still testing with the research council is going to “literally transform how utilities perform these [leak] surveys.”

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