With energy independence, energy exporting through LNG, billions of dollars in economic benefit, and more than 4 million jobs hinged to the development and deployment of the shale play natural gas reserves, one would think a national plan would materialize to capitalize quickly on the pending benefits.
However, the reality of the situation is that a number of somewhat formidable barriers need to be either dismantled and/or negotiated to harvest the dramatic advantages of the shale plays. Although efforts are underway to deal with and manage the issues regarding protection of the environment, safety regulations and the miss-shaped arguments of the anti-shale play groups, other internal industry issues are also in need of serious attention.
For example, it has already been said in an April Pipeline & Gas Journal article, “The Intelligence/Human Capital Hurdle,” there is a growing need to reverse past trends, regarding the “brain drain” associated with elevated incidents of highly experienced talent retiring from the industry.
This shortfall of experienced human capital offers yet another challenge just as major growth in the industry throughout the value chain is accelerating. In addition, while we consider the need to expedite plans to build out new infrastructure, rebuild existing infrastructure and repair functionally capable infrastructure to support growing gas-related product demand, we not only need highly knowledgeable people, we need more technology solutions that improve the efficiency of these efforts.
When we also consider the proposition to build quite a number of LNG facilities that provide valuable provisions for gas product storage and the opportunity to export energy, the issues of human capital and technology grow even greater.
Bundled technology solutions unlocked the natural gas reserves from the shale formations. As pointed out in a March P&GJ article, “Unlocking The Potential of Unconventional Gas,” horizontal directional drilling, micro-seismic imaging, and hydraulic fracturing technologies were analyzed, adjusted and used to foster the technological solution for harvesting the previously untapped gas resources. The creative and innovative talents of multiple people working in concert with already known technology solutions gave rise to a remarkable process solution which produced the shale revolution.
Looking down the value stream of the shale plays, we note the growing number of pipeline projects that are underway or in the planning stages. We also recognize the necessity of improving our distribution infrastructure to meet the upcoming demand increase for gas product.
It is further understood that a major initial user of the natural gas supply is electric power generation. Upgrading our electric generation facilities in terms of capacity upgrades and conversion from coal burning designs to natural gas-burning designs is one of the demand drivers for the new natural gas reserves. Each of these value stream improvements make up the critical first phase for making our country energy-independent.
It can also be argued that the combined benefits of energy independence, environmental benefits (gas emissions are significantly better than most alternatives), economic benefits (flourishing businesses) and American family benefits (careers and jobs), are all so significant that there is moral responsibility to achieve them in a timely fashion.
Expediting the entirety of the value chain elements to bring all the benefits to fruition as rapidly as possible requires that a number of management initiatives, combined with some technology refinements, will need attention soon. Although we have already noted that barriers, such as political/government concerns, environmental issues and regulatory requirements need to get industry attention , we must also acknowledge the need to build up the industry’s intelligence/human capital to adequately address the elevated challenges of building, retrofitting and upgrading the infrastructure.
Simply put, we need large numbers of people, and we need the knowledge of the infrastructure processes and the infrastructure technologies in order to best meet the acceleration of the infrastructure build-up and replace/rebuild/repair related projects.
Let’s additionally acknowledge that to really expedite and accelerate the shale revolution, there is a significant need to usher several technology innovations. We need technology assistance down through the value chain to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of stepping up the process of infrastructure capacity, safety and integrity.
As PECO Energy senior engineer at Mark Andraka recently said when asked what technology is needed to expedite the benefits of the shale revolution in the pipeline and distribution arena, “We need continued enhancement of trenchless technologies and methods to efficiently rehabilitate our aged infrastructure.”
At present, there are numerous technology innovators at work to equip the industry with needed solutions. However, along with Andraka, voices within the industry are outlining the technology improvements needed to accelerate the full benefit package of the shale revolution. Some of the most frequently mentioned include:
• Technology that precisely locates and documents underground infrastructure.
• Improvements in assessing and analyzing infrastructure in terms of ability to service elevated flow.
• Technology solutions that re-engineer existing flow equipment of pipelines to enhance flow capacity and boost line pressure.
• New innovative processes less intrusive to the surrounding environment that rehabilitates and rebuilds existing infrastructure.
• Technologies that continuously monitors infrastructure systems so that the data affords proactive service management.
• Technology that converts and re-engineers coal-fired electric generation machinery to natural gas fired operations.
Certainly it stands to reason that less invasive rehabilitation/rebuilding processes should help reduce community objections to infrastructure upgrade projects. In regard to community and environment safety concerns, one can realize that improved real-time monitoring systems do provide performance data that assist in predicting potential system failures, thereby affording major reductions in failures with possible disastrous consequences.
As for the technologies needed to convert coal-fired electric plants to natural gas-fired plants, innovators and solutions are already in place. With clear direction and stimulation, some of these are capable of having a favorable impact in the near term.
In many of these technology solution areas, just as was the case with the combination of horizontal directional drilling, micro-seismic imaging and hydraulic fracturing for the shale plays, bundling emerging technologies with known technologies is likely to bring dramatic solutions. Some of these fundamental technology initiatives are already underway.
Underground Infrastructure Location, Documentation
Highly accurate location technology that can identify various forms of underground utilities and other surrounding structures has been and continues to be a very real need for the industry. To be both efficient and effective, the technology needs to capable of identifying structure forms, identifying structure features and dealing with all forms of material types (steel, cast and plastic). It must also be operator-friendly and quick to deploy in the field.
The data from the locate activity needs to provide permanent graphical records (maps) and be capable of being integrated into a management system. Other benefits could include features for work management, work performance authentication and detection of unauthorized system taps. This technology is essential to improving the quality and efficiency of work practices on underground infrastructure. The safety improvement alone associated with annual levels of excavation damages is a significant need.
There are existing technologies that meet some of the capability requirements for the location/documentation solution, however, a complete solution package is needed to help expedite and accelerate infrastructure restorations, repairs and upgrades to our aged infrastructure. One company, housed in the Center for Emerging Technologies in St. Louis, is headed up by a serial technology entrepreneur who has a geospatial background. He, along with his scientists and engineers, are already actively developing solutions for this critical area of need.
SADAR 3D, Inc. is led by its founder, Steve Crain, who was previously a fellow with the Trimble Navigation, LTD (NSDQ: TRMB). He describes his emerging technology as a breakthrough in the field of commercial radar and imaging.
Non-Intrusive Infrastructure Assessment, Documentation
At a recent demonstration event at PECO Energy in Philadelphia, an innovations company in the Northeast unveiled a new non-invasive technology for launching an investigative camera into a pressurized distribution system. This design and manufacturing company had developed a tool set that allows a high-resolution investigative camera to be launched through an existing distribution tee.
This tool set can investigate a distribution system that is as small as a 2-inch diameter main that is operating up to 100 psi. The system has numerous operator safety features as it provides examination of existing underground infrastructure without the need to open large excavations and without the need to weld or mechanically affix any entry hardware for the camera. The system can initially search pipe systems up to 150 feet in either direction from the point of entry. As the camera advances through the piping system, the visual images are recorded and the position of the camera head. Therefore, the position of any feature/anomaly is visually recorded.
Pipelines, Natural Gas And Electric Generation
Vice President of Engineering Robert Klova, of Rotating Machinery Services, Inc., described his company’s areas of expertise as “having engineering design and manufacturing capabilities to redirect and increase pipeline gas flows by re-engineering existing compression equipment and also the gas turbines that often drive them.”
This organization uses state-of-the-art equipment, documentation and analysis technologies coupled to provide equipment for both of these areas of expertise. Their specifically designed solutions effectively increase the supply of clean-burning natural gas for the generation of electricity and other purposes. In addition, their precise and professional reengineering technology extends the life of existing compression equipment, while improving its output performance.
Summing It Up
The instances of emerging technologies mentioned are just a small sample of the creative resources already at work in the industry. Clearly, it was a bundled technology solution that unlocked the shale gas reserves and moved us into the era of the shale revolution. Although the environmental, governmental and regulatory issues in need of management and resolution are substantial, so are the needs for more advanced technologies that will help to accelerate the value chain infrastructure improvements. People and technology produced the bundled solutions that got us to this point; technology and people will get us more bundled solutions.
William Hutton, Ph.D., is a professor of management at DeSales graduate program. He is also a managing director for JMJ Summit Services where he provides professional advisement services for technology based companies and performs utility industry research.