Berkeley Lab launches project to detect methane emissions with $6M grant

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Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, along with several partners, including Stanford University and UC Riverside, received a $6 million grant from the California Energy Commission to develop a project on methane emissions in the San Joaquin Valley.

The project, called SUMMATION — or SUper eMitters of Methane detection using Aircraft, Towers, and Intensive Observational Network — strives to monitor and quantify methane emissions using accurate, cost-effective methods.

SUMMATION was created after the Paris climate agreement changed the paradigm for global emission reductions, according to Sébastien Biraud, a Berkeley Lab scientist and head of the project. He hopes that the lab’s project can establish practices that can be used on a wider scale.

With several policies mandating the reduction of methane emissions at the state and federal levels — including California AB 1496, which was passed in 2015 the project seeks to identify sources that contribute heavily to this problem. The project zeroes in on the San Joaquin Valley, but the end goal is to expand the methodology and apply it in other regions of the state, according to Biraud.

Methane exacerbates climate change, and it is described as a “powerful greenhouse gas” by the Climate & Clean Air Coalition. Berkeley Lab seeks to address the framework used to detect methane emissions, specifically those originating from major emitters.

According to a statewide survey by the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory from 2015-17, about a quarter of the statewide sources are responsible for about 80 percent of methane emissions. What this means is that these “super emitters” are critical sources of pollution, according to a news release from Berkeley Lab. A super emitter could be a landfill, a dairy farm or an oil and gas facility.

SUMMATION attempts to address the problems of inconsistent monitoring and a lack of infrastructure in areas where methane detection is a complex project, according to Biraud.

“The southern San Joaquin Valley is particularly lacking in reliable CH4 data … this translates to significant uncertainty in the total magnitude and space-time-sectoral distribution of CH4 emissions in the region,” Biraud said in an email.

The team will evaluate the deployment of low-cost sensors to ensure the project remains economically realistic.

Hinging on three tiers of action, the project outlines phases of “persistent regional monitoring,” “periodic wide-area airborne surveys” and “follow-up & intensive campaigns,” according to the lab’s news release. SUMMATION will utilize tracers to identify the sources of methane. These tracers will help the team differentiate between dairy sources and gas or oil sources, for example, based on the presence of certain alkanes.

According to Biraud, the three observational tiers, which combine different “measurement and estimation methods,” will facilitate broader sampling that tracks methane emissions across regions and time scales.

“An accurate, transparent, and trusted system for measuring country-level greenhouse gas emissions built in partnership with all nations is now a core requirement to ensure that global response to climate change is working as envisioned,” Biraud said in an email.

Contact Sasha Langholz at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @LangholzSasha‏.