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Bringing the HEET: MA Non-Profit Organizes Gas Leak Discovery Mission for Cambridge and Somerville

Photo by Massachusetts Dept. of Environmental ProtectionHEET (Home Energy Efficiency Team), a Cambridge, MA, nonprofit which organizes public weatherization parties and barnraisings, is crowd funding a natural gas leak monitoring project in Cambridge and Somerville. Boston University Professor Nathan Phillips, who drove the streets of Boston last year with a high-precision methane analyzer to find 3,356 natural gas leaks, will loan HEET his methane analyzer and other equipment to drive the Cambridge and Somerville roads mapping every leak. Moving at 15 MPH, covering both sides of every street should take about three weeks.  You can learn more about HEET'S Squeaky Leak project and help fund it, if so inclined.

Professor Phillips will analyze and map the results and HEET will do the driving, following up thusly:

  • Map of the leaks on the HEET website
  • Report the leaks to NSTAR to get all Grade 1 leaks fixed
  • Share the location and amount of leaks with the governments of Somerville and Cambridge so they can work with NSTAR to fix these leaks
  • Publicize the map to raise awareness about natural gas leaks in order to make sure effective actions are taken on the ground and in the legislature as soon as possible to reduce the leaks not only in Massachusetts, but across the country

Lastly, to compare the amount and number of leaks between Cambridge and Somerville, to see whether Cambridge's decade-long policy of fining NSTAR heavily for opening any roadway that the City is not already working on, while charging it nothing to repair pipes under the roads the City is about to work on succeeded.  Since NSTAR has not shared with the city any map or information about the current or past gas leaks, Cambridge does not know whether this policy worked or not.  HEET's and Prof Phillips' project would provide that data.

If Cambridge has the same percentage of leaks per square mile per person as Boston, there are 500 natural gas leaks emitting the equivalent of 32,000 metric tons of CO2, costing Cambridge ratepayers $350,000 per year. Somerville would have 287 leaks emitting 22,838 tons, costing $240,000 per year.  Fixing a leak costs an average of $2,500 and, according to State Rep. Lori Ehrlich, saves that many dollars in gas within three years.

"The utilities are not incentivized to fix the leaks. They get paid by the amount of gas that leaves their distribution centers, not by the amount delivered to a home. The utilities have "sniffer" trucks that drive down every street to map these leaks regularly. However the utilities are not mandated to share the location of these leaks with the local municipality nor to repair the leaks, but only to stop explosions. In order to become explosive, a leak needs to be in a contained area. A large leak pouring out methane in an open area can't cause an explosion and thus does not have to be fixed, ever. The protocol for leaks in constrained areas is frequently to ventilate rather than repair. So if a Grade 1 leak is found under a manhole, the manhole cover is often switched out for a slotted cover to allow the gas to escape into the atmosphere...."

Conservation Law Foundation calculates that in terms of carbon emission equivalents, the natural gas being emitted by these leaks is larger than the amount of carbon equivalent saved by all the energy efficiency programs in Massachusetts.

"We hope to raise awareness about natural gas leaks in order to make sure effective legislation and action are taken as soon as possible to reduce the leaks not only in Massachusetts, but across the country."

The project goals are to have 5 percent of the leaks fixed in both cities, saving 2,725 metric tons of CO2 equivalent per year and $29,305 per year to ratepayers in Cambridge and Boston.

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