Toward A Smarter Gas Pipeline Grid

February 2012, Vol. 239 No. 2

Richard Nemec

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.

As the industry white paper noted using U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) data, 900 of the next 1,000 electric generation plants built in the United States will be fueled with natural gas. There is no getting around the growing fact that gas is a strategic resource for electricity, the report notes, adding that some of the technology needed to marry the two systems does not exist yet.

Paul Greenwood, vice president for Americas gas marketing at ExxonMobil, told an industry audience in October 2011 in Los Angeles that natural gas will be the fastest growing energy source worldwide during the next 20 years, and that growth in gas-fired generation will be the major part of that growth.

Thus, in addition to a challenging vision, an unprecedented amount of resources – money and expertise – will need to be focused on an initiative whose full bowl of fruit will not be tasted until 2030 or later.

Fitch Ratings warned in mid-October that several domestic interstate natural gas pipelines could face rating downgrades if they lose their competitive advantage or face re-contracting pressures as they try to adjust to shifting forces of supply and demand.

Fitch added that newer pipelines – such as Rockies Express, Midcontinent Express and Ruby – have a competitive advantage in the marketplace because of extensive integrity testing, an area of concern in the wake of the San Bruno.

Future pipeline rules and regulations remain uncertain, said Fitch, but “(we) expect mandated costs to improve safety and limit environmental damage will be manageable for interstate pipelines.” The rating agency added that the federal investigation into the San Bruno explosion eventually could result in mandatory testing of pipe manufactured before 1970, require the use of automated or remote-controlled shutoff valves and require increased testing outside high consequence areas.

Better technology and improved processes are part of the emerging vision of the future gas systems. INGAA’s Boss says it is a matter of getting “a lot smarter in how we take care of the system.” That means the pipeline operators’ integrity management programs need to be able to take large quantities of information and filter it down so the right maintenance and safety efforts are applied in precisely the places where they are needed most, he says.

“It requires a lot more data and analysis,” Boss says. That has translated in some areas into a lot more focus on the use of global positioning system (GPS) devices in smarter hand-held devices (smart phones and IPads) that can be used more by pipeline operators in the field.

“We’re helping to modernize the way field data is collected, all of which is adding to the intelligence that is available in the field and back in the office,” says GTI’s Marean. GTI is working on the development of a lot of new sensors and their linking to communications devices so there is more real-time two-way communications all along the pipeline systems – some of which does not exist today, according to Marean.

What is envisioned is a future pipeline world in which sensors for reading pressure or cathodic protection systems are routine parts of the infrastructure.

On the safety front, Marean is working with the California Energy Commission (CEC) to scan the universe of existing pipeline integrity monitoring technologies. The CEC project attempts to answer the often-asked post-San Bruno question of what new technologies need to be encouraged, and how can smart meters now being installed throughout California be optimized?

In metering, monitoring and controls systems, the gas-electric split seems to widen, and people like Elster American Meter’s Joe Turgeon are working to narrow the gap, explaining that is the only way a smart energy vision can be realized. Electric operators track voltage; gas people watch pressures and volumes. Turgeon is convinced the meter is the center of the smartening, but it is a lot different than the purely smart electric meter concept.

“We can do things in the distribution automation level by putting sensors in with the pipes or at the meters to read the pressure at the end points of the system,” says Turgeon, offering the example of measuring corrosion on a pipe by having an electrical charge run through it, or measuring how much metal is in the pipe by the shape of the curve as part of cathodic protection.

For gas, you have city-gate and district regulators, which are very similar to electric grid substations. “There is potential to automate those operating functions with the communications system that is in the advanced metering networks,” says Turgeon, adding that “gas has been much slower to adapt to the smart grid concept.”

Two main drivers to the smart electric grid are peak-shaving and demand-side management. Electric utilities benefit greatly by being able to regulate and control the amount of power they need to give customers. “If you’re generating and you don’t use it, it dissipates,” Turgeon says. “But gas is a stored commodity. If you don’t use it, you don’t lose it.”

There is a “catch-up” aspect to the gas industry’s current efforts to address the delivery of operational intelligence from its physical system. From his industry-wide work for GTI, Marean is convinced the gas sector is lagging behind the electric industry, although the reasons are not surprising. Electric operators have been focused for years on lowering peaks and demand response.

“That’s why there has been so much emphasis on the smart side in the electric industry,” he says. “Everything has been meter-focused.”

While the inherent differences remain with the electric real-time, use-it-or-lose-it operating environment compared with gas capabilities, both systems have a fair amount of intelligence, although the power side is the one recognized for having it. Marean points out that gas systems have SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) just as the electric grid does.

The “catch-up” by the gas sector will take three to five years in Marean’s opinion, with part of the length of the time-dependent on how much funding is provided by the industry and government alike.

Turgeon says Elster has a multi-utility smart meter communications device, EnergyAxis ™ supporting a variety of fixed network and/or walk-/drive-by remote reading. Leveraging that technology, it expects to introduce remote disconnection capability on the gas side in its advanced residential meter (AC-250) next year.

“In addition, we are working with others in the industry to interface sensing and automation devices (low pressure distribution network sensors, cathodic protection readings, methane sensing, etc.) to further leverage the communications network investment,” Turgeon says.

As Turgeon’s and Marean’s comments emphasize, much of the gas industry’s applications of technology are downstream, but that should not imply that the producers are uninterested. After all, technology advances in hydraulic fracturing and seismic 2D and 3D analysis of oil/gas plays have created the need for a more dynamic, advanced gas infrastructure.

The Natural Gas Supply Association (NGSA), a Washington, DC-based trade association for the production sector, has been active with INGAA and others on some of the white paper and what led up to it.

“It is amazing what the gas producers have been able to achieve with new technology in the shale plays,” says Patricia Jagtiani, a NGSA senior vice president. “I think the smarter grid and the smarter production were not even anticipated five years ago. And the technology advances are continuing to progress as producers get into deeper and deeper areas than even a year ago. This all allows for more and more (onshore) exploration.”

NGSA members are applying more micro-seismic technology, enabling drilling using the same surface footprint to go back and fracture formations multiple times. “From a relatively small footprint, they can go out much farther and get more natural gas,” says NGSA’s communications director Daphne Magnuson, noting that smart production is complementary to a smart infrastructure.

Richard Nemec
is West Coast Correspondent for P&GJ and can be reached at