If you live in a natural gas neighborhood, you may have seen workers from your local utility walking the streets, equipment in hand, trying to detect any gas that might be leaking out of pipes and pipelines. That's a slow process — there are only so many miles a person can walk in a day — but a new technology makes it both easier and faster while also helping to reduce greenhouse emissions and save money.

It's called the Picarro Surveyor, and it's made the same company that makes some of the hand-held equipment already in use. The Surveyor is a vehicle-based system that can instantly sniff out any methane in the air — whether it is from natural gas or naturally occurring — and pinpoint the source to within just a few feet. And it can do that while moving at normal traffic speeds, allowing utilities to quickly survey larger territories, something that is especially useful in areas with aging pipeline systems. The Surveyor is said to be 1,000 times more sensitive than existing equipment.

The new technology is already in use in Boston, where Pacific Gas & Electric has bought six of the Surveyor systems. "I see it as a game-changer," Nick Stavropoulos, PG&E's executive vice president for gas operations, told the New York Times. "It's amazing how much more effective it is in finding gas leaks on our system than traditional technology."

The technology will be particularly useful in a city like Boston, which has an aging and leak-prone natural gas pipeline system. The Picarro technology was actually first tested in Boston, where it found 3,356 methane leaks from natural gas pipelines. A recent study by the House Natural Resources Committee, requested by Massachusetts Senator Edward Markey, found that old pipelines cost Massachusetts consumers $1.5 billion over the past decade, according to a recent report from the Boston Globe.

While that cost was passed on to consumers, the pipelines were also leaking methane, a potent greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere. According to Energy Department statistics cited by the Globe, pipelines in this country leak less than 1.5% of their natural gas each year. In addition to the effect on the environment, leaking pipes also put people at risk and can result in road closures and home evacuations.

PG&E recently started training employees to use the new Picarro Surveyor technology, which has been mounted on customized Ford Escape hybrids. Part of the training focused on safety. A 10-foot-tall anemometer that "sniffs" the air is mounted on the top of each vehicle, which makes safe navigation a priority.

Boston isn't unique, by the way: researchers recently mapped out thousands of natural gas leaks in Washington, D.C., using Picarro's technology.

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New technology helps utilities sniff out natural gas pipeline leaks
Aging pipelines leak dangerous amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.