As a natural gas company that manages 80,000 miles of pipeline (enough to wrap around the world three times), Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) is constantly managing risk.

To do that, the company employs an advanced leak management program, which uses advanced technology, has rigorous systems to track work and compliance, and employs an expertly trained workforce.

Since the tragic 2010 event in San Bruno, PG&E has achieved significant safety advances through its investments in leak management technology, and it is one of the key ways in which the company manages risk: The fewer leaks on a system and the healthier the pipelines means lower amount of risk to the system overall.

“As we’re deploying technology, automating more of our processes, cutting down and eliminating the manual way we do some work, people are getting inspired and becoming more engaged around what we’re trying to do,” explained PG&E’s Executive Vice President Nick Stavropoulos, who has overseen the modernization of the company’s natural gas system.

Finding and fixing leaks

PG&E is investing millions of dollars in new technologies, including those that provide more accurate and efficient ways of identifying leaks and enhancing the integrity of its gas systems.

Thanks to these investments, the company surveyed most of its 70,000 square miles of service area, which has reduced minor, non-hazardous leaks by 99 percent since 2010.

These investments included designing and building a $30 million a state-of the- art gas control center, and providing 400 ruggedized laptops and 300 tablet computers to gas crews, which gives realtime access to maps and pipeline records. This also allows field crews to better interact with the gas control center.

One of PG&E’s most successful endeavors into the tech world has been a strategic alliance with Picarro Inc., a leading provider of technology that measures, traces and reduces greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations. For the past three years, PG&E has piloted Picarro™ technology (super- sensitive methane detectors on wheels) for leak surveys. Mounted on vehicles this advanced gas-sniffing equipment is 1,000 times more sensitive than traditional gas leak methods and excels in pinpointing hard-to-locate leaks. The Picarro™ technology allows project crews specifically assigned to the project — known as “Super Crews” — to conduct a year’s worth of division-level surveys and repairs in roughly four weeks. Using this technology, PG&E crews can survey and fix an entire neighborhood at once. The company reaps many benefits from this process. Crews are able to fix more leaks each day and, because more issues are resolved sooner, there has been a decrease in leak rechecks and customer calls.

Using space-age technology

The company is using every resource at its disposal to enhance leak detection and mitigation, including technology that is literally “out of this world.” Collaborating with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the San Francisco Bay Area, PG&E is piloting technology currently being used on the Mars Rover.

Originally designed to find methane on the red planet, this laser-based technology is lightweight and has superior sensitivity to detect methane. The technology guides PG&E crews via a tablet interface to identify leaks. The development of this tool is part of PG&E’s collaborative research effort at Pipeline Research Council International.

PG&E finished replacing 847 miles of cast iron pipeline — more than enough to stretch from San Francisco to Seattle — with stronger and greener material.

“Working alongside some of the best scientific minds in the world, we’re developing new, predictive capabilities about natural gas operations with the intelligence gathered by these tools,” said Sumeet Singh, PG&E vice president, gas operations asset and risk management. “We’ve been able to make advancements in natural gas pipeline safety through innovation, and we are committed to not only continuing to enhance the safety of our system, but also sharing these solutions across the industry.”

These technological advancements not only allow the company to be a more proactive operator, they help increase safety and achieve significant cost savings. PG&E has reported cost savings of roughly 50 percent since adopting these ultra-sensitive surveyor technologies, compared to traditional leak survey and repair methods.

PG&E employees replace a stretch of pipeline.

PG&E employees replace a stretch of pipeline.

PG&E’s around-the-clock nerve center

But perhaps the greatest jewel in PG&E’s crown of technologies is its ultramodern, $30 million gas control center in San Ramon, California. The facility houses both gas control and dispatch functions, and serves as PG&E’s around-the-clock nerve center to monitor all aspects of its natural gas system.

Having real-time information and centralized teams allow the company to better anticipate and respond to public safety concerns and ensure system reliability. The design of the control center incorporates the latest technology, and best-in-class emergency management and response tools.

The center features a 90-foot-long video wall and smart boards that allow field personnel and system operators to analyze, share and assess important regional data in real time. The operation is staffed by employees who monitor 6,750 miles of transmission pipeline and 42,000 miles of distribution pipeline around the clock.

Leaks, changes in pressure and the location of on-call gas service representatives are just some of the data points available to control center personnel. ‘Big Data’ garners a lot of headlines these days, but the ability to do real-time analysis of its system allows PG&E to find and fix leaks fasterthan ever before.

Plus, because company crews have laptops and tablets, their improved interaction with the gas control center has helped the company reduce its average odor call response time. In 2014, PG&E was in the top 10 percent nationally for its average response time of 19.95 minutes — a 14-minute decrease from the company’s 2010 response time.

“With the aid of a touch screen, gas crews can mark-up maps with comments or questions, and send screenshots to our gas control center,” Singh explained.

The control center is also equipped with a simulation facility to ensure that operators can address potential emergency situations, and hone crisis prediction and management skills.

PG&E’s multipronged approach to repairing leaks and managing risk is working. In 2013, PG&E’s innovative gas safety actions led to a 99 percent reduction of minor leaks, from 12,500 to only 150. In 2014, the company reduced its minor leak backlog to nearly zero.

A centralized work management system

To track leaks and the work performed to fix them, PG&E logs all of its leak data into one enterprise core system (SAP). SAP generates leak work orders, schedules and dispatches repairs, and tracks leaks to closure. Leak surveyors can create electronic records instead of logging leaks on paper. This technology increases the traceability, timeliness and accessibility of the company’s gas assets and stores the information in a single, enterprise system.

Asset management

PG&E recognizes that a leak management strategy is not complete without stopping potential leaks from occurring through the constant maintenance and assessment of its assets. One of the ways the company has worked to do this is by applying the standards of two prestigious asset management certifications: Publicly Available Specification (PAS) 55-1 and International Standards Organization (ISO) 55001. The PAS 55-1 and ISO 55001 certifications provide a solid model for shaping the company’s asset management strategy. They address how the company manages its large number of physical assets, such as transmission and distribution pipelines, gas storage facilities, pressure regulator stations, meters and more.

To achieve these certifications, PG&E underwent a rigorous audit by Lloyd’s Register, an independent, internationally recognized organization that conducts engineering and operations audits in the utility, energy rail and maritime industries.

Lloyd’s Register conducted a series of independent interviews and audits of PG&E’s office and field operations. It had full access to the company’s people, plans and gas system. Its staff traveled more than 1,700 miles throughout PG&E’s service area, and conducted interviews with more than 150 management, field employees and contractors. At the conclusion of the assessment, PG&E became one of the first utilities in the world to achieve these certifications.

“The men and women of PG&E have worked tirelessly to transform the safety and reliability of our gas system,” Stavropoulos said. “These certifications are evidence of our continually improving safety culture and our robust asset management program.”

In addition, PG&E asked Lloyd’s Register to return for regular assessments to ensure that the company maintains continuous improvement. Each time Lloyd’s Register returns, it will be evaluating how the company is growing and improving. If the assessors aren’t satisfied, the certifications can be revoked at any time.

With the certifications’ road map for asset management, PG&E is implementing new and efficient ways to inspect its pipelines. It recently launched a oustomized “smart-pig” that travels inside transmission pipelines and captures detailed information without interrupting gas service. This device is equipped with cameras and sensors to check pipe thickness and welds, and it can detect flaws and corrosion. The company is also testing a miniature robot to inspect the outer portions of pipe inserted in pipe casings without digging into the ground above.

To identify issues before they become safety risks, the company deploys a trio of 3-D laser scanners. The laser scanners help crews visualize pipelines in ways that could have never been imagined decades ago by creating models so accurate and detailed, they look like photographs. With these models, crews can see every nook, cranny, wrinkle and bump on the pipeline, allowing them to make the best informed decisions about the health of the pipeline.

A PG&E worker prepares to test a new “smart-pig,” which travels inside a transmission pipeline and captures detailed information about the health of the pipe.

A PG&E worker prepares to test a new “smart-pig,” which travels inside a transmission pipeline and captures detailed information about the health of the pipe.

 Pipeline enhancement and replacement

Updating pipelines when needed is a critical part of leak management, which is why PG&E created a Pipeline Safety Enhancement Plan. The plan has guided many initiatives throughout the organization, such as automating 208 valves, replacing 127 miles of transmission pipeline and upgrading 201 miles of transmission pipeline to accommodate in-line inspection tools. The company has also verified the strength of847 miles of pipeline through hydrostatic strength testing and verifying previous records.

Verifying the maximum allowable operating pressure (MAOP) and conducting centerline surveys on all of its 6,750 miles of transmission pipeline has been a major component of PG&E’s Pipeline Safety Enhancement Plan, so the company can better identify and prevent risks to its pipelines, and strengthen its ongoing pipeline safety programs in the process.

One of the biggest wins for the company was to complete the removal of all known cast iron pipeline from its system In 2014, PG&E finished replacing 847 miles of cast iron pipeline — more than enough to stretch from San Francisco to Seattle — with stronger and greener material. This dramatically reduces the risk of potential leaks. The new pipeline material is also more efficient and seismically sound than cast iron, an important consideration in earthquake-prone California.

Quality data collection

Collecting and tracking quality data is at the core of managing PG&E’s gas system. Inevitably, the ground moves and dig-ins happen. In order to respond quickly and correctly to these incidents, the company must have a strong records system in place.

“PG&E’s goal is to do right by our customers and communities,” Singh said. “We measure everything relentlessly at PG&E. Providing and sustaining real-time, accurate, traceable, verifiable and complete asset information is key to making the best decisions for our system.”

The company is boosting the accuracy and health of its records. In 2012, the company created a records and information management organization to define, implement and manage standard recordkeeping practices. More than four million paper records, associated with 6,750 miles of transmission pipelines from 60 locations, were scanned and are now electronically stored in a centralized database. This project has made PG&E’s record system more accessible and complete. Through training employees, implementing electronic systems, and creating a network of records and information coordinators throughout the service area, the information management team is standardizing processes and promoting best practices. As a result, the team has increased efficiency and promoted consistency across the organization.

With the help of a geographical information system (GIS) tool, the company maps, reconciles and analyzes data and events. Last year alone, the company converted data on 27,000 miles of main and 2.3 million services into GIS, and scanned approximately five million gas service records consisting of more than 12 million pages of information.

“Enhanced safety is the product of improved data and records, which is why we’ve launched technology and optimized work processes so that crews in the field and operators in the control room have all the information they need at their fingertips,” explained Singh.

Continuous safety improvement

One of the greatest strengths of PG&E’s gas operations is the alignment between its safety management systems: leak, asset and risk management. With systems that share objectives and have complimentary initiatives, PG&E is building a culture intolerant of risk, that is open to innovation, and to continuously enhancing pipeline safety and reliability.

However, Stavropoulos says the work is not yet done.

“We continue to make real, measurable progress as we strive to become the safest and most reliable gas operator in the nation,” he said. “We are pleased with our progress so far, but there is still more work to be done. Our team is working every day to build a safe and reliable 21st century gas infrastructure. When it comes to safety, our work is never done.”