Yingqi Zhang

Yingqi Zhang (Photo credit: Kristine Wong)

As one of the largest methane leaks in U.S history, the incident at the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility in Southern California revealed the risks of aging infrastructure. It also called attention to the need for a more comprehensive approach towards risk management.

Now Berkeley Lab is at the forefront of developing new tools to manage the risks of underground natural gas storage sites in California, where a dozen such facilities reside. A multidisciplinary team of scientists from the Lab’s Earth & Environmental Sciences Area led by Yingqi Zhang was recently awarded $3 million from the California Energy Commission. Her team will develop and demonstrate a system aimed at helping facility operators and risk managers characterize, model, and manage the safety and integrity of underground natural gas storage infrastructure.

“Some wells used at California’s storage sites were originally designed for other purposes,” Zhang said, who holds substantive experience in risk assessment and mathematical modeling. “But the way these wells were constructed decades ago may not be adequate for today’s standards.”

Zhang’s system—dubbed the Integrated Risk Management and Decision-Support System (IRMDSS)—will be designed to merge advanced monitoring technologies with scientific models to continuously assess risks. It will also identify potential threats to the system, assist facility operators with managing data, analyze trends, and help them evaluate options aimed at preventing leaks or mitigating risks.

In other words, IRMDSS will be designed to enable operators to be more proactive in taking preventive measures early on, instead of fixing a problem after it occurs.

“Compared to current risk analysis methods, IRMDSS provides a more quantitative, forward-looking analysis with advanced technologies,” Zhang says. “We plan to incorporate real-time data to update our model and update our predictions.”

As an official partner on the project, the Southern California Gas utility will work with the team to test and demonstrate IRMDSS at one of their underground natural gas storage facilities.

“Our team has a lot of expertise in advanced monitoring technology and modeling,” Zhang said. “It’s very exciting that we can use our knowledge to address a real problem. We expect application of IRMDSS will result in lowered mitigation costs—and prevent disruptions to our energy supply.”