Meet Our Greenhouse Gas Gumshoes

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By: Todd Schulz

We are on a mission to reduce methane emissions from our natural gas operations.

One critical step is finding and fixing minute leaks of methane, a greenhouse gas, slipping into the atmosphere from a massive storage and delivery network.

Rickey McDaniel and his team of methane detectives are on the case.

McDaniel, based at the Kalamazoo Service Center, leads a handful of employees scouring the system for signs of “fugitive” methane emissions. Their work is helping us achieve net zero methane emissions by 2030 — the equivalent of removing about 55,000 vehicles from the road for a year or preserving more than 300,000 acres of forest.

“If we’re smart and strategic, we can meet that goal,” said McDaniel, a senior engineering technical analyst lead. “This is helping us reduce our methane footprint. We’re absolutely helping the planet.”

Methane accounts for about 10 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions from human activities, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). While methane stays in the atmosphere for much less time than carbon dioxide, it is about 25 times more effective at trapping heat.

We have already reduced methane emissions from our operations by 15 percent over the past decade. Our strategy to reach net zero includes accelerating the replacement of aging pipe, retiring outdated infrastructure and using renewable natural gas.

Unfortunately, emitting some level of methane is unavoidable with a vast storage and delivery system that stretches thousands of miles and includes about 1.5 million service connections.

Front Lines of the Clean Energy Transition

McDaniel’s team probes for these microscopic emissions by using infrared cameras to spot the invisible gas and 20-pound, hi-tech vacuum backpacks to measure leaks.

They patrol natural gas wells, compressor stations — which move natural gas to and from underground storage fields — and city gate stations, where odor is added, and pressure regulated for safe delivery to homes and businesses.

“It looks like something from Ghostbusters,” McDaniel said with a laugh. “There’s a lot of walking. With the cameras, we can see and identify a leak. Then, we quantify a leak with the backpack.”

The work to pinpoint and plug leaks started in response to federal requirements to report emissions of methane and other greenhouse gases and has expanded over the past decade. In 2021, McDaniel and his team, which partners with employees from our Laboratory Services group, plan to conduct methane surveys at 26 natural gas wells, about 20 city gate stations and all seven of the company’s compressor stations.

“We’ve gotten smarter and more efficient,” McDaniel said. “Now, we’re looking at how we can use technology to get surveys done even more safely and on time.”

‘The Future is Autonomous’

McDaniel, 53, started his nearly 30-year Consumers Energy career as a temporary storeroom employee at the Palisades Nuclear Plant near South Haven, about 30 miles away from his hometown of Lawrence. He worked a variety of jobs — including meter reader, transmission and storage pipeliner and field leader — before finding his niche in natural gas measurement and instrumentation.

“I’m a certified geek,” McDaniel said. “I’ve always loved and gravitated toward electronics and technology. I’m always looking for new stuff.”

That passion for innovation is part of our plan to track methane more safely and efficiently.

McDaniel and team are testing the capability of unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly known as drones, to collect data, especially from places they can’t reach such as tall emissions stacks.

We own several drones that are handling a variety of jobs throughout the company. Soon, they may find and log methane leaks quicker, safer and more accurately, he said.

We are also investigating the use of smart technology to spot and watch leaks remotely throughout the system.

“The future is autonomous,” McDaniel said.

Learn more about our plans to lead Michigan’s clean energy transition at ConsumersEnergy.com/GasDeliveryPlan.

Watch the Methane Detecives in action here:

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