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Nick Stavropoulos, Executive Vice President of PG&E, Gas Operations, right and Michael Woelk, CEO of Picarro, left, answer questions at Picarro headquarters located in Santa Clara, Calif. on Monday, Jan. 30, 2012. Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) and Picarro demonstrated cutting-edge gas leak detection technology. PG&E has already purchased two of the car-mounted gas leak detection devices, which are 1,000 times more sensitive than traditional instruments. Picarro is world leader in instruments for carbon and water cycle measurements. (Dan Honda/Staff)

PG&E on Monday unveiled high-tech equipment to better monitor leaks in its sprawling network of gas pipelines, saying it would help the beleaguered utility achieve its goal of becoming the world's safest gas company.

The system, which combines car-mounted instrumentation and software, can detect the tiniest of leaks a football field away, and PG&E said it will allow the company to survey pipelines five times as frequently at no additional cost.

"This mobile methane detection equipment is revolutionary. It is unlike anything that exists in the world today," said Nick Stavropoulos, executive vice president for Pacific Gas & Electric's gas operations. Stavropoulos was hired seven months ago to address safety problems that came to light in the aftermath of the deadly 2010 pipeline explosion of a PG&E gas pipeline in San Bruno, which killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes.

Currently, leak surveys along the company's 6,000 miles of large gas transmission lines and 44,000 miles of smaller gas distribution lines are conducted by crews with hip-mounted equipment and a handheld wand that is passed over the ground.

The new equipment, developed by the Silicon Valley firm Picarro, is about 1,000 times more sensitive, company officials said. And because it is mounted in a car, the entire distribution network can be surveyed every year, instead of every five years.

Picarro's instruments can pick up a change in methane levels of just 1 part per billion within a second, said Picarro's CEO, Michael Woelk. The result: instantaneous measurements of natural gas levels along the route of the car.

During a demonstration Monday at Picarro's headquarters in Santa Clara, a screen displayed on the wall of a conference room showed a blue line that tracked the route of the car. The line spiked as the car passed a canister of gas with a pinhole leak that was placed along the side of the road.

PG&E paid about $250,000 for two pilot units. If Picarro can fine-tune the software to more precisely locate leaks, Stavropoulos said, PG&E could have 25 of the units running within a year. He added that he is confident the programming to isolate the location of leaks can be done, given that Picarro has already surmounted much steeper challenges.

The companies have not settled on a price for the equipment or what kind of package of training and maintenance will be wrapped into the transaction. But Stavropoulos said there will be no effect on customers' rates because the system will prove cheaper or the same cost as its current monitoring system.

The leak-detection application of the technology was stumbled upon by accident, Woelk said.

Picarro, which makes equipment to measure gases, was trying to figure out a way to measure methane emissions from landfills, a requirement under California's greenhouse gas laws.

Woelk left a Sacramento-area landfill where he and two others were working to take his children to a Girl Scouts event. He forgot to turn the analyzer off, and when he came to work the next day one of his engineers had downloaded the data and displayed it on Google (GOOG) Earth. Spikes in the data showed up near sources of methane, like dairies and settling ponds, between the Sacramento landfill and his Livermore home, Woelk said.

"It was visual," Woelk said. "It drove our curiosity."

Methane is the principle component of natural gas. In tailoring the equipment to detect pipeline leaks, Picarro was able to configure its analyzer to filter out the other sources of methane so only natural gas is detected.

Since the San Bruno explosion, PG&E has been heavily criticized for shortcomings in its gas operations.

On Friday, the California Public Utilities Commission fined PG&E nearly $17 million for failing to properly survey gas lines along 14 miles of gas distribution lines in Antioch, Concord, Danville, Brentwood and Discovery Bay.

The failure to survey the gas lines was reported by PG&E to state regulators under new rules adopted to increase pipeline safety in the wake of the San Bruno disaster.

PG&E also has been criticized for relying on a pipe-inspection method that is good at spotting corrosion, but not good at detecting bad welds. Since the San Bruno explosion, which was attributed to poor quality welds, it has been under pressure to instead check its gas lines with water-pressure tests and robotic gadgets called pigs, which run inside pipes.

Stavropoulos said the company is increasing its use of water-pressure tests.