Toward A Smarter Gas Pipeline Grid

By Richard Nemec | February 2012, Vol. 239 No. 2

What used to be talked about only among a few natural gas industry insiders is now talked about loudly in wider energy circles under the rubric of “smart grid, smarter pipeline network,” and more recently, “smart energy” topics. With safety, reliability and market drivers all coming into play, the natural gas highway is readying itself for some increased electronic scrubbing and manipulation.

“Buckle up and don’t get left behind,” is the message from industry groups. All indications are this could be a bumpy ride for an industry that has prided itself on low tech, but high reliability. From the North American-wide implications of the San Bruno, CA pipe tragedy in September 2010 last year to the unprecedented wellhead freeze up in the Southwest early in 2011, the handwriting is on the wall, and - now - regulators and Congress are making clear the need for the gas infrastructure to smarten up.

Given the emphasis on the electric “smart grid,” the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America (INGAA) worked collaboratively to publish its “smart energy” report, says Terry Boss, INGAA senior vice president for safety and the environment.

Boss thinks the report - released early in 2011 - demonstrates the pipeline grid “fits into some of the technology solutions. They talk (principally) about the electric smart grid, but the gas system needs to be thought of in that vein, too, he says.

“If the public policy and the business practices do not work in lock-step with the technology out there, including the physical aspects of the system, then, individually, these things cannot work,” Boss says. “The new gas report essentially lays out some policy questions that need to be discussed.”

He reminds his listeners that these are inventory and control issues. “If the inventory is not there, then the industry organizations have to re-devise the U.S. gas system. And if someone wants the service, they need to help pay for that service.”

INGAA and the other major gas industry trade groups in North America - with the help of the Gas Technology Institute (GTI) and Navigant Consulting Group - published a white paper, “Natural Gas in a Smart Energy Future,” drawing on industry-wide input.

According to its authors, the white paper attempts to articulate “a compelling vision” on how increasingly plentiful domestic natural gas can provide “the key to a smart energy future.” The analysis and recommendations anticipate integration of the gas infrastructure with the increasingly “smart” power grid and supporting ever-higher levels of renewable energy on that grid.

The report authors, including some very experienced gas industry professionals, such as GTI’s James Marean and American Gas Association’s (AGA) Rick Murphy, outlined how gas properly integrated could deliver a number of advantages and avoid falling into a number of widening problems related to costs, reliability and safety.

Overarching to an advanced natural gas system are two broad initiatives that are still only partially recognized, according to industry people trying to create a commonly understood vision:

1) The growing, yet still under-appreciated, interdependence between the electric and natural gas systems, along with the identification of mutually understood critical infrastructure essential to both systems.
2) Conceiving and putting in place an interactive model that both systems can use in terms of long-range planning and risk mitigation, eventually on a seamless basis.