Paula Gold-Williams smart sniffer
CPS Energy President and CEO Paula Gold-Williams speaks to reporters in front of the utility's so-called Smart Sniffer, a car with equipment that can detect natural gas leaks. Credit: Brendan Gibbons / San Antonio Report

A car loaded with sensitive instruments and analytics software will help CPS Energy staff sniff out leaks in its network of pipes that distribute natural gas, utility officials announced Monday.

CPS Energy unveiled its so-called Smart Sniffer to local news media outside of District 7 Councilwoman Ana Sandoval’s office. The car’s wrap features a picture of a dog mascot named Gaston wearing a CPS Energy hard hat.

Attached to and inside the car are sensors and computers that can locate gas leaks that pose a risk of explosions, waste money through lost fuel, and contribute to climate change because of the heat-trapping properties of methane, the key component of natural gas.

Analytics equipment by Silicon Valley firm Picarro can process information from sensors on the vehicle’s exterior to detect the location of natural gas leaks. Credit: Brendan Gibbons / San Antonio Report

“It can go anywhere in our community to help us find things before they become an issue,” said CPS Energy President and CEO Paula Gold-Williams.

Currently, CPS Energy personnel search for leaks on foot, using handheld instruments and walking along pipeline routes, which often take them through alleyways and yards, said Don Stanton, senior director of gas delivery. The Smart Sniffer can identify the likely location of a leak from the road by factoring in wind speed, direction, and other parameters.

The car is an example of ways energy providers can be proactive in finding solutions to climate change, said Sandoval, who has engineering degrees from Stanford University and MIT and has previously worked on air quality and climate issues in the San Francisco Bay Area.

CPS Energy is deploying the car even as the utility, the City of San Antonio, and the University of Texas at San Antonio continue developing a plan meant to address the local causes and effects of climate change.

“We don’t have to wait until that plan is done to begin taking action on greenhouse gas pollution,” Sandoval said.

While many environmentalists have focused on natural gas leaks from oil and gas drilling and production sites and large transmission pipelines, distribution networks like CPS Energy’s have been proven to have many leaks, especially in older cities or neighborhoods.

“Methane leaks are a challenge throughout the natural gas supply chain, from wells in the field to the pipes under our streets,” said Mario Bravo, Texas outreach specialist for the Environmental Defense Fund.

For example, when Google and the Environmental Defense Fund teamed up to survey leaks in several cities across the country, they found leaks everywhere they looked, with the most serious issues in places such as Boston; Syracuse, New York; Staten Island, New York; and Pittsburgh.

CPS Energy has 5,500 miles of pipelines supplying gas to its roughly 340,000 customers in the San Antonio area, Chief Operating Officer Cris Eugster said.

Its oldest lines within Loop 410 date back to around the 1950s and 1960s, Stanton said.

The vehicle will help the utility with its plan to begin surveying its lines on a three-year cycle instead of a five-year cycle, Stanton said.

The system, made by Silicon Valley firm Picarro, isn’t cheap. The equipment itself cost $500,000, and a five-year plan for the analytics costs another $500,000, CPS Energy spokesman John Moreno said.

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Brendan Gibbons

Brendan Gibbons is a former senior reporter at the San Antonio Report. He serves as the assistant manager of the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance.