Leak detection and repair have become increasingly critical to the safe and reliable delivery of natural gas and to protecting the environment. Yet many gas distribution companies are finding that their pipelines are aging at a faster rate than they can be surveyed and repaired. That’s because the traditional flame-ionization leak-detection process is hard-pressed to keep pace with emerging demand for more frequent, accurate and efficient surveys and repairs.
The incumbent leak-survey process is time-consuming and essentially manual. Surveyors walk the length of the territory and use hand-held equipment to check for leaks; often they must get permission from property owners to enter. If surveyors find a hazardous leak, they must place a call to report it and remain onsite until the repair crew arrives. Furthermore, paper-based documentation of leaks must later be manually entered into pipeline information systems, a method that creates delay and invites human error.
These factors all contribute to high leak survey unit costs and long cycle times. As a result, many gas utilities survey pipelines on five-year cycles – despite increasingly vocal demands for more frequent surveys by customers and environmental groups.
What’s more, the accuracy of existing technology is archaic compared with new leak-detection tools which enable surveyors to discover leaks at sensitivities as high as one part per billion – one thousand times more precise than traditional tools.
New Technologies, Opportunities
Next-generation leak-detection technologies can fundamentally change utility leak management processes. Using highly accurate detection equipment, the entire pipeline system – and high consequence areas in particular – can be surveyed more frequently and efficiently. Consider the comparison below between the traditional leak and next-generation leak survey processes.
Next-generation leak-detection technology enables surveyors to cover more ground per day with exponentially better accuracy and fewer false positives. Here’s how: A two-person team can drive a survey route and test for leaks using precise methane-detection technology integrated with cellular-equipped tablet computers, telemetry tools and highly accurate GPS technology.
When integrated with technologies like 4G cellular, geographic-information systems (GIS), and asset-management systems, survey data can be collected and transmitted in real time to central pipeline-information systems, with little to no manual intervention. Leaks are plotted on digital GIS maps, and leak repair schedules can be automatically generated and sent to repair crews located nearest a leak. Surveyors armed with tablets can take advantage of applications that deliver real-time data and electronic forms, and they also can instantly transmit data and photos of completed work to the central office.
Several U.S. gas utilities are piloting an amalgam of these innovative leak-detection solutions. Among them is Pacific Gas and Electric, the first to test a new trace gas analyzer called the Picarro Surveyor, which employs cavity ring down spectroscopy (CRDS) to precisely measure and map methane detection.
Using Optical Tech To Map Methane
New optical technologies enable gas utilities to survey and repair pipelines with unprecedented accuracy and efficiency – and without a flame.
One new technology is CRDS, a time-based optical measurement technique that employs a near-infrared laser to measure absorption of gas phase molecules in the air. Unlike traditional hand-held surveying devices, CRDS is typically installed in vehicles that drive through neighborhoods to scan for natural gas.
CRDS gas analysis can be one thousand times more sensitive than traditional leak-detection equipment and can detect leaks down to one part per billion in ambient air. It also has the ability to preclude false positives by differentiating between naturally occurring sources of methane. When a leak is detected, the tool can pinpoint the source, map it, and alert verification and repair teams immediately.
Another new optical-detection tool, the detecto pak-infrared (DP IR), employs infrared-controlled interference polarization spectrometry (IR-CIPS) to detect methane at one part per million. Unlike the CRDS technology, DP IR is used by field workers who walk, rather than drive, survey routes. The device can analyze the severity to instantly grade a leak and, using an add-on module, can wirelessly transmit information to enterprise systems.
Clearing Hurdles Of New Technology
To realize the benefits of next-generation leak-detection technologies, utilities will need to surmount four primary hurdles to implementation: technology funding, initially increased maintenance and construction costs, re-engineering of end-to-end leak-management processes and comprehensive change management.
The first obstacle is gaining budgetary approval for investment in a wide range of new technologies. This may not be not easy since utilities typically pursue a general rate case (GRC) to obtain a rate of return to pay for technologies, which may not have yet been purchased.
It will be necessary to attain GRC budgetary approval for investment in technologies such as gas-detection analyzers, data center servers and devices like smart phones and tablet computers. Funding must also provide for the integration of these assets with existing data-collection and analysis solutions, GIS tools, and work-management and asset-allocation systems, among others. In some cases, it may be necessary to budget for vehicles to ferry the new surveyors.
New leak-detection technology will also dictate a rethink of IT operations, processes and resources. For instance, gas distributors will need to align new leak survey scheduling and execution processes with core IT technology systems. It also may be necessary to implement or enhance communications infrastructures, such as 4G and Wi-Fi, to ensure that data is quickly and reliably transmitted.
A deployment of next-generation leak-detection tools may result in significantly higher upfront maintenance costs. That’s because more accurate and efficient detection tools will increase the number of leaks found. A higher volume of leaks dictate a ramp up in the volume of repair jobs or replacement projects, since known leaks must be repaired within a specific timeframe.
This may then require additional repair and construction crews, purchase of more pipeline inventory and increased operational spending. Accordingly, gas distributors may need to seek adequate funding for initially higher costs associated with repairing more leaks. We believe that gas utilities should approach the rate case with the “bigger” picture in mind – not simply as a means to secure funding but rather as a quest for technology-enabled pipeline safety – and the required investment to get there by engaging with regulators and key stakeholders.
Re-engineering Processes, Preparing People
As with any transformational change, implementation of next-generation leak-detection management isn’t simply a matter of deploying updated technology. Instead, the underlying processes should be re-engineered to create new efficiencies, and employee awareness and training programs.
Technology itself will not repair inefficient or broken processes. The move to a paperless, fully digital environment provides an opportunity to re-engineer broken processes and streamline existing procedures. These should be carefully aligned with existing workflows and systems, and an unwavering focus on ensuring reliability and safety, as well as adherence to regulatory and compliance mandates.
None of these new technologies and processes will be successful without disciplined change management. That’s because new tools and new ways of working require a serious commitment to employee training and skill development. Leak surveyors, for instance, may not be familiar with new technologies like tablet computers, mobile apps and GPS.
It’s important that employees adopt new technologies and processes to realize the benefits of next-generation leak-detection management. This will entail training and skill development across a wide swath of divisions and employees, including leak surveyors, maintenance and construction crews, mappers, union employees, office personnel, pipeline engineers, operations management and third-party contractors. Complicating the matter, these workers may all have varying skill sets and comfort in the use of the latest and changing technologies.
Automated leak-detection technology will provide gas utilities with real-time data that will enable them to identify and verify leak indications, and analyze pipeline integrity, risks and operational performance to gain immediate insight into areas that require improvement or repair.
For instance, next-generation leak-detection systems will allow gas utilities to more easily track key metrics such as leaks per mile of pipeline, response time, repair time, and cost of maintenance and construction per mile. Making use of this new data may require utilities to develop a strategy to integrate pipeline-information systems with asset- and work-management systems and data-analysis solutions. It may also be necessary to define key performance indicators (KPIs) to assess baseline performance and set improvement goals.
Strategy For Leak Detection
Implementation of next-generation leak-detection technologies will be integral to enabling the safe and reliable delivery of energy – now and for generations to come.
A successful strategy will demand that utilities pilot new technologies and design processes that make sense for their customers and regulators, win the rate case, define comprehensive implementation and change-management plans, and integrate all the pieces to realize efficient, reliable and safe gas-pipeline operations.
Overcoming the hurdles to implementing the next-generation leak-detection technologies won’t be easy. The obstacles, however, are not insurmountable and can be accomplished by following a phased deployment plan. This will be a multi-faceted approach customized for individual utility environments.
Consider the following:
1. Regulators will expect that utilities design and test a comprehensive pilot program to demonstrate technical feasibility and results in high-risk areas. Gas utilities should carefully assess their technology ecosystem and vet new leak-detection technologies and vendors that will deliver the best results for individual needs.
An expertise in technology infrastructure may be necessary to design a pilot program that delivers the results and information that executives and regulators need to make decisions. Gas companies should also chart a comprehensive technology-implementation roadmap that fully addresses change and impacts on people, processes and systems.
2. It is essential to develop a disciplined business case that clearly evaluates the cost and benefits of new leak-detection technologies – and helps your company win approval for rate recovery. To do so, utilities should document the pilot technology and process improvements to satisfy regulatory and compliance challenges, and articulate a clear description of benefits to justify the investments in technology and the funding for additional leak repairs.
We believe that a winning business case should carefully assess current leak-survey processes, tools, resources and performance results, and then compare them with projected performance of new tools to demonstrate quantitative benefits as well as identify risks and mitigation plans.
3. Leak-management and integrity-management processes should be redesigned to fully leverage the capabilities of next-generation leak-detection technologies. Taking a risk-based approach, we recommend that gas utilities assess their current processes to identify gaps and areas of improvement.
They should then redesign processes to plan and schedule leak surveys, collect and integrate pipeline data, assess and prioritize risks, automate repair prioritization and scheduling, and ensure efficiencies in workforce management. We believe process redesign should include specialists who have expertise in re-engineering processes to ensure safety and reliability of pipeline operations.
4. Utilities should develop a regulatory strategy and rate case to recover leak-detection technology investment and incremental leak-repair costs. We believe that gas utilities should approach regulatory compliance and rate making by skillfully translating pilot results, business-case benefits and process improvements into an integrated pipeline safety-enhancement investment and rate case.
It may be necessary to enlist the guidance of external specialists that have supported numerous utilities in successfully navigating the intricacies of rate-case preparation, including data gathering and development of pro forma adjustments. They should also have focused knowledge of expert testimony on accounting, taxes and operational issues. Outside specialists also should support data-request responses throughout the filing process to validate the investment and anticipated incremental costs.
5. It may be necessary to design an integrated, phased deployment and change-management plan. Gas utilities should create a phased implementation roadmap to address high-risk areas, evaluate impacts on employee groups and functions, and plan comprehensive communications and training to manage change and minimize risks. Further, the utilities should be able to measure quantitative improvements in KPIs to ensure that expected benefits are realized.
Taking a long view, PwC believes new technologies will speed the leak-survey cycle, enabling gas utilities to more frequently survey pipeline systems to find and repair leaks. That will result in better asset condition information for pipeline integrity management and maintenance and construction-work management.
Above all, next-generation leak-detection technology will enable gas utilities to meet the increasing demand for natural gas while setting a higher bar for public safety.
Jian Wei is a principal in the PwC Advisory, Power and Utilities practice, where she focuses on transmission and distribution asset and work management. She has more than 17 years of experience helping clients identify cost reduction and efficiency improvements.
Mark Menzie is a director in the PwC Advisory, Power and Utilities practice. He has more than 15 years of combined industry and consulting experience in the utilities, renewables, electronics, semiconductor, medical device, and chemical sectors. Over the past four years, Menzie primary focus has been on gas and electric utilities.
Jared Racine is a manager in the PwC Advisory, Power and Utilities practice. He has worked in several project and program management roles, including work in PwC Smart Grid group where he developed several thought leadership pieces on implementing smart grid technology.