AltaGas Utilities, Inc. (AUI) is a provincially regulated natural gas distribution utility, delivering safe, reliable, clean and cost efficient natural gas service to over 80,000 residential, rural, commercial and industrial customers in more than 90 communities across Alberta, USA. The company commenced operations in 1954, with its head office located in Leduc, Alberta. It operates its gas distribution systems with over 21,000 km of natural gas pipelines and over 700 pressure and regulating stations through a network of 16 district offices.
In July 2018, AUI acquired WGL Holdings, the parent company of Washington Gas Limited and a regulated natural gas utility providing affordable natural gas to more than 1.1 million customers in the districts of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia. It has also acquired SEMCO Holding Corporation, a privately held regulated public utility company headquartered in Port Huron, Michigan. SEMCO indirectly holds a regulated natural gas distribution utility in Alaska through ENSTAR Natural Gas Company, and an interest in a regulated natural gas storage utility in the state, Cook Inlet Natural Gas Storage Alaska, LLC. Apart from this, it indirectly holds a regulated natural gas distribution utility and an interest in an unregulated natural gas storage facility in Michigan.
To enhance service monitoring and asset management, AUI and its subsidiary gas utilities have been taking various technological initiatives. Two following some of the key technologies adopted by them.
Utility network management: AUI has implemented the American Society for Testing and Material standard for tracking and traceability encoding of natural gas distribution components, which standardises barcodes containing critical attributes of private equity assets. To comply with the new standard, AUI adopted Esri’s ArcGIS Utility Network Management solution, a geographic information system (GIS)-based solution that delivers advanced asset modelling and data schema matching. After three years of development, testing and integration, AUI went live with the utility network in September 2019.
With the utility network, AUI is now able to append as-builts directly into the existing network, validate “dirty areas” with the validate tool in ArcGIS Pro, integrate regulator station modelling in the network, and utilise the advanced isolation tracing functionality. With the implementation of the utility network, the company has witnessed an increase in outage management/ gas tracing capabilities, improved data records supporting gas distribution, and cost and time savings from simplified administration. It has also helped AUI improve the integrity of its utility network data, provide a comprehensive view of assets to everyone across the utility, and ensure regulatory compliance.
AMR: AUI wanted to improve the number and accuracy of its meter readings, and reduce the higher-than-average incidence of meter reader injuries. Driven to solve these problems, it researched automated meter reading (AMR) technologies, specifically fixed network and remote capture methods. AUI determined that the best option was remote capture technology, which called for cradle-mounting its existing, handheld meter-reading devices in AUI service trucks. This also avoided the cost of new devices. Using remote capture AMR, AUI personnel would collect meter data in the general vicinity of the gas meters, without having to enter private property.
In April 2015, the utility was introduced to the concept of aerial meter reading, post which AUI decided to resequence its meter reading cycles for optimal aerial collection. The method of reading meters based on local capacity was replaced with read cycles based on geographic zones. In November 2015, the first attempt to collect data by air was made and the project was successfully implemented in March 2016. AUI now uses AMR technology to read meters remotely, reducing costs and human errors and improving data accuracy. These readings are collected throughout the province using an airplane, reducing greenhouse gas emissions related to meter reading by 80 per cent.
GPS: The gas utility has integrated GPS equipment into its construction ploughs, which communicate directly with its GIS. As a result, the utility is able to collect pipe location data in three dimensions in real time, reducing costs and human errors, and improving data accuracy. Besides, AUI has integrated GPS data from its service vehicles with its despatch system, ensuring that the closest technician responds to emergencies, and service routes are optimised.
Despite gas supply, the main responsibility of any gas utility is to ensure that the gas is transported safely, and that its supply to customers is uninterrupted. Pipeline failure or possible consequences of gas leakages or explosion not only cause material damage for the company and society, but also lead to substantial environmental costs. Therefore, a gas utility has to guarantee proper functioning of its systems in every aspect. Whether deployed on trucks, drones or airplanes, new and promising technologies find natural gas leaks swiftly, offering the possibility of quicker detection and faster response to methane leaks. They are also cost effective. While still in development, many of the technologies have demonstrated a strong potential.
AUI is currently testing and evaluating a number of new technologies such as the use of drones to detect gas leakages and scan proposed pipeline routes. Besides, it is planning to deploy infrared imaging to detect extremely small leaks at outdoor above-ground facilities, and adopt the encapsulation of fittings to measure extremely small leaks in gas measurement stations. Infrared thermography (IRT) is an infrared image-based technique that can detect temperature changes in the pipeline environment using infrared cameras. Changes in temperature measurements are one of the common indicators of gas discharge in the pipeline surrounding, as gas leaks usually cause abnormal temperature distribution. The use of IRT for pipeline monitoring is widely accepted due to its capability to measure temperature changes in real time and in a non-contact manner.
Based on a fuel-neutral decarbonisation approach, AUI and Washington Gas have been evaluating the emissions reduction potential for a number of measures organised by end use, transmission and distribution, and sourcing and supply. Washington Gas has been working to include leak volume quantification analysis wherever possible, and survey processes, including alternative advanced leak detection technologies (on a pilot basis), as part of its approved list of pipe replacement project prioritisation criteria. In addition, the company will continue to use advanced data analytics for analysing and projecting leaks in its piping assets, with a focus on developing better predictability of future leak occurrences.
The ultimate goal is to utilise better analytics and machine learning to reduce/avoid leaks at a faster rate through pipe replacement. Washington Gas is also undertaking a pilot for the use of drawdown compressor technology to recover gas in infrastructure during maintenance and replacement in order to avoid atmospheric venting. It has been evaluating the use of drawdown compressors on a variety of pressures and project types to fully understand the operation and capacity of the equipment. The company is in the process of developing its own compressor technology that would be suitable for addressing small-scale recovery projects.