Fix the Worst First
A 2016 Boston University study of gas leaks in Boston found that 7% of the leaks are super-emitters, emitting half of all the gas by volume that leaks from the pipes under our streets. At that time, the amount of gas emitted from the leaks in the Greater Boston region essentially erased all of the gains from the state’s energy efficiency programs.
Natural gas is over 90% methane, a highly potent greenhouse gas. This means that fixing the biggest gas leaks first is the fastest and most cost-effective way to cut planet-warming emissions from the gas distribution system. HEET immediately began educating advocates and policy makers on the opportunity together with the Gas Leaks Allies. Just months after the research study was published, Massachusetts passed a law requiring that these leaks of “significant environmental impact” be prioritized for repair. This is one of the fastest science to policy stories we know of.
We needed a better way to find the leaks.
Unfortunately, as utilities have always been mandated to focus on safety, not volume, they didn’t have a reliable, fast method to identify which of the over 16,000 leaks in the state were gushing out the most gas.
HEET convened an unlikely coalition of activists, academics, utilities, innovators, and nonprofits to scientifically test five potential methods for quickly and reliably identifying the “super-emitting” leaks.
The three utilities who agreed to participate in the project (National Grid, Eversource and Columbia Gas) represented 95% of all the gas customers in MA. The gas companies identified leaks they suspected were high volume, shared that information, and actively worked with HEET’s research team, sending utility trucks out to collect data with our researchers.
Together, we found an effective method—and a national model
Since the gas companies already determined the extent of the leak “footprint”—the gas-saturated surface area—using common utility devices, measuring this footprint was not difficult or expensive. The good news was this ‘footprint’ was a better indicator of the ‘flux’ or volume of gas leaked than all the other methods tested - even the far more expensive spectrometer.
Together with the utilities, HEET created a Shared Action Plan on how to enact the method. The plan includes:
- Data transparency
- Independently verified results
- Annual reassessment, allowing for improvements in technology
The end result is a national model for reducing methane emissions from pipes under our streets. You can learn more about HEET’s work in this area on the Shared Action Plan section of this site.
None of the organizations in the coalition could have managed this on their own. The solutions discovered through our collaboration are just the beginning of the impact such a coalition can have.
We’ve shown we can work together to solve a big, complex problem. Now we need to expand and accelerate our progress to keep our climate livable.
Organizations involved in the study
- Nonprofits: HEET, Mothers Out Front, Sierra Club of Massachusetts, as well as all the nonprofits in the Gas Leak Allies
- Government: Metropolitan Area Planning Council
- Academics: Boston University Professor Nathan Phillips, MIT Hackathon organizers, Lead Researcher Zeyneb Magavi
- For-profits: Gas Safety Inc., Millibar, MultiSensor Scientific
- Utilities: Columbia Gas, Eversource, National Grid
Generously funded by Barr Foundation and Putnam Foundation as well as many individual donations.