New pipe could help curb gas leaks

Using high density polyethylene could save money

IN LATE MAY, the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy released its version of draft energy omnibus legislation. Climate Action Business Association, a Boston-based business group, responded by calling for a more robust policy, specifically calling on lawmakers to take bolder steps to address the gas leaks issue in the state. The business association works with cross-sector businesses across the state to take targeted action on climate change.

Gas leaks pose both damaging environmental and safety hazards and detrimental economic impact on our local business community. Massachusetts has one of the oldest gas pipeline systems in the country. Home Energy Efficiency Team (HEET) has created a map highlighting nearly 20,000 potentially dangerous gas leaks. The aging pipes, made of cast iron or unprotected steel, have a higher tendency to leak harmful methane gas into the atmosphere, creating a significant public safety threat. Leaks in natural gas pipelines are not only harmful to human health but can cause disastrous explosions.

Unfortunately, when you leave a gas leak unrepaired, it doesn’t get any better over time. Some leaks in the state have been left unrepaired for as long as 30 years. That’s a lot of lost gas that residents and businesses have to pay for. The cumulative economic impact of these gas leaks is not something to be ignored. A Harvard University-led study calculated the total cost of lost gas to be $90 million per year in the Greater Boston area alone.

The economic impact of these leaks is especially substantial when compared to the amount of natural gas conserved through Massachusetts’ energy efficiency programs. Massachusetts has been named as the most energy efficient state for five years in a row. In 2010, energy efficiency programs produced savings of 1,097 million cubic feet of natural gas at a cost of $62.4 million. That’s enough natural gas saved to power 10 million homes and produce an estimated $204 million in benefits. During the same time period, Massachusetts gas companies reported a loss of 1,725 million cubic feet of natural gas through pipe leaks. As utilities let these leaks go unrepaired, we watch our energy efficiency investments and emissions reductions fly out the window.

Current state and federal policies discourage pipeline owners from tracking down and fixing their leaks. At a time when meeting our emission reduction targets is uncertain, replacing our aging infrastructure is a viable option. High density polyethylene (HDPE) piping offers a corrosion resistant and leak-free method. Piping made from this form of plastic is a cost-effective solution for replacing our aging infrastructure. Polyethylene is strong, durable, and has the lowest repair frequency per mile of pipe per year compared with all other pipe materials (like cast iron and bare steel) used for gas distribution. Newer pipe technologies even have the ability to detect leaks before they happen, minimizing the risk of devastating long-term damage.

When aging cast iron and bare steel pipelines are left in the ground instead of being replaced, utilities spend millions of dollars each year responding to and repairing leaks on old pipelines. That’s a lot of manhours and repair costs. According to the filings of natural gas companies who have replacement programs in place, for every mile of leak-prone pipe that they replace, they can reduce repair costs (defined as operations and maintenance expense) by up to $1, 761 for bare steel and up to $2,188 for cast iron. Over the course of a full year, that could add up to $7.5 million in avoided costs if that old leaky pipeline is replaced with new pipe. Use of HDPE piping is a surefire method to avoid leaks and save time, money and labor.

Meet the Author

Abel Jimenez

Business development manager, Proper Pipe, Inc.
Meet the Author
Replacing the pipes with innovative solutions will also put us on track to meet emissions targets mandated by the state. Leaks in our distribution system, contributing to potent methane gas emissions, are a significant part of our state’s greenhouse gas inventory. Given the recent state Supreme Judicial Court ruling, that claimed Massachusetts is not meeting its obligation to reduce greenhouse emissions, we will need to look toward innovative solutions to reduce our emissions. Although the recent draft energy omnibus bill was a step in the right direction, it is timid at best in helping us achieve our emissions targets. Policymakers will need to look to methods beyond just clean energy procurement to reduce our emissions. We also need to fix the leaks that a contributing to that emissions problem.

Abel Jiménez is business development manager at Proper Pipe, Inc.