SoCalGas invests in fiber optic technology for detecting gas leaks

SoCalGas invests in fiber optic technology for detecting gas leaks

SoCalGas invests in fiber optic technology for detecting gas leaks
Work gets underway on laying fiber optic cable (Credit: SoCalGas)

Early warning sensors will help prevent pipeline damage from unauthorized construction work and detect leaks at Californian utility SoCalGas.

Fiber optic technologies are playing an increasingly important role in communicating the condition and performance of smart grids, enabling utilities companies to provide safe and reliable energy to homes and businesses.

With those goals in mind, Southern California Gas Company (SoCalGas) has just announced it has broken ground on a fiber optic cable installation that will enable it to monitor the condition of high-pressure transmission pipelines in real time.

The fiber optic technology is being installed along a new, seven-mile section of natural gas pipeline in Bakersfield, California and will serve as an early-warning system to detect unauthorized construction work that could damage the pipeline as well as changes in pressure that could indicate a leak in the line.

It’s an important step forward in SoCalGas’s mission to modernize its infrastructure, enhance safety and reduce its carbon footprint, according to Deanna Haines, director of gas engineer at the company. “This technology provides our engineers with a critical early warning system that can prevent damage to our lines and help us mitigate leaks more quickly.”

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Changes to light signals raise the alert

The technology uses fiber optic cables that run alongside a pipeline and transmit data across long distances. The system operates on the principle that, when a fiber optic cable is subject to vibration, stress or an abnormal change in temperature, the light signals that pass along it will change – indicating a possible gas leak or an impact to the line. The fiber optic system can pinpoint to within 20 feet where a problem may be developing.

When a threat is detected, information is sent along the fiber cable to a remote monitoring station within seconds, where operators can interpret the signal changes to determine the nature of the problem. It could be the unauthorized use of heavy equipment near the pipeline, for example, an unexpected earth movement or other physical impacts, like structural stress from broken water mains.

The operators can also let first responders know about the unfolding situation. In the case of this installation, for example, “Firefighters will be able to respond quickly to an emergency and work with SoCal Gas to stop the problem from escalating,” said Kern County Fire Chief Brian Marshall.

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Leaks must be stopped

Natural gas is often considered an environmentally friendly fuel for generating electricity, since it emits around half as much carbon dioxide when burning, as compared to burning coal. However, it has a major downside, in that it is prone to leaking. Plus, it comprises about 95 percent methane – a greenhouse gas that traps 86 times as much heat as does carbon dioxide over a 20-year period. So natural gas leakages need to be tackled for the sake of the planet. 

SoCalGas claims to be one of the first natural gas utilities in the country to use fiber optic technology in natural gas transmission and high-pressure pipeline system operations. The company plans to install fiber optic cable along all new and replacement pipeline segments 12 inches and greater in diameter and in excess of one mile long.

But another local utility has also shown its willingness to try new smart grid technologies recently. In December 2016, Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) said that it was piloting a laser methane detection system developed by San Francisco start-up Acutect at one of its natural gas storage facilities in northern California. This uses sensors and cloud technologies to identify the presence of escaped methane along pipelines.

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Jessica Twentyman is a journalist with a 20-year track record as both a writer and editor on national newspapers and IT trade titles. Her work focuses on how smart companies use technology to achieve real business results. She is a contributor to the Financial Times, The Economist and Computer Weekly, and Consulting Editor on Diginomica.com and I-CIO.com.

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