This week, I squished into the backseat of a Google Street View car with Karin Tuxen-Bettman. She manages the Google Earth Outreach program, and she traveled to Pittsburgh from California to demonstrate how a handful of these specially outfitted hatchbacks are helping to fight climate change.

Almost everyone living in a city has seen the Google fleet riding up and down streets, cameras mounted on their hoods. They collect that data that gives Google Maps users a 360-degree view of roads and neighborhoods. But we’re riding in one of four cars that are pulling double duty, because they’re also mapping methane leaks from gas pipelines underneath the streets in 11 cities across the country.

“As we’re driving along, we will be picking up methane concentrations from different sources,” Tuxen-Bettman says.

LISTEN: How Google Street View Cars are Detecting Methane Leaks

Our driver tools around the morning rush in Downtown Pittsburgh, minding his own business and looking out for traffic. But a clear tube under the front bumper of the car is taking in air. It runs inside, along the door and into the trunk. That’s where the analyzer lives.

It’s silver, the size of a couple of shoe boxes and is making a chugging noise. But this rather expensive, research-grade piece of equipment detects methane—the main ingredient in natural gas and a major contributor to global warming. It also picks up on the ethane in gas. It’s the relationship between the two that Tuxen-Bettman says indicates if the methane is coming from the city’s old natural gas infrastructure.

She leans forward and reads two jagged, parallel lines on a monitor that’s mounted in the front seat.

“In that last couple minutes, it looks like we did pass some emissions of methane, but I don’t see a corresponding ethane leak, so it’s possible that that could have been emissions from a sewer manhole.”

All of this data is uploaded to the great Google Cloud in the sky and run through an algorithm. Scientists at Colorado State University analyze the results, and if a methane leak from a gas line is suspected, the Google Street View car is instructed to sweep through the area again—just to be sure.

WATCH: “Mapping the Invisible”

 

Google is partnering with the Environmental Defense Fund and Peoples Gas on this project to see where and how much methane is escaping in Pittsburgh.

“Pennsylvania is an important place to do this because it has the largest amount of leak-prone pipe of any state in the country,” says Steve Hamburg, chief scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund.

He spoke earlier, before the test drive, at a briefing in a nearby hotel about the initial pilot project in Pittsburgh. It covers an area stretching across a few neighborhoods, including Downtown, and found 200 leaks—most small, a few big—in a little over 300 miles of pipes. According to the Environmental Defense Fund, almost half of the gas lines in the city are more than 50 years old.

Peoples Gas is already working on a multi-billion-dollar effort to replace these old pipes. In the past, they’ve classified which ones they should yank out first based on things like safety or how well the pipes are performing. But Ed Palumbo, vice president of reliability at Peoples Gas, says the quantity of methane leaking from pipes wasn’t really part of the equation. They simply didn’t have the technology.

“We’re able to take this additional data point, and bring it into our own risk rankings that our engineering group does to help schedule and prioritize those pipeline replacements over the next 20 years,” Palumbo says.

methane-leaks-map

In Pittsburgh, the pilot project found 200 leaks—most small (yellow), a few big (red)—in a little over 300 miles of pipes. Pennsylvania has the most aging, leak-prone pipes of any state in the country. Map courtesy Environmental Defense Fund

The utility’s goal is to quickly and efficiently become more like Indianapolis—another city mapped by the project—where methane leaks are few and far between. Peoples Gas actually contacted the Environmental Defense Fund to get the project rolling in Pittsburgh, and their data are accessible to utilities, regulators and the public.

And what’s in it for Google? Back inside the Street View car, Karin Tuxen-Bettman says they like trying new things.

“This is something that I think everybody cares about—environmental air quality and climate change,” Tuxen-Bettman says. “If we can help with the technology piece and partner with organizations that can make an impact on the ground, then it’s a win-win for everybody.”

The project is expanding into more Pittsburgh neighborhoods with help from Carnegie Mellon University. Tuxen-Bettman says Google’s looking into whether it’s feasible for more of their cars to carry the methane sensing equipment. And she hopes someday soon, the cars will do triple duty—by mapping other invisible pollutants in the air, like ozone and fine particulate matter.