June 2018, Vol. 245, No. 6


Roadmap to Future Energy Infrastructure

By Richard Nemec, Contributing Editor

After his first year in Washington as Secretary of Energy, Texas native and former Gov. Rick Perry obviously felt at home when he returned in March to address part of the CERAWeek conference in Houston

The GTI Research Institute south campus in Des Plains, Ill.

Back in familiar territory, he was eager to impart what he called some “new energy realism” and push aside any remnants of the recent past, which he classified as “old energy pessimism.” Technology was what Perry wanted to talk about, and he talked about it bullishly.

A few weeks earlier in Houston, Perry and various DOE officials met with upstream and midstream oil and natural gas industry executives to identify the next generation of technologies to unlock more of the plentiful U.S. resources.

“Whether we’re talking about carbon capture, developing new solar technology or stepping up efforts on storage, there is a tremendous amount of optimism in the energy sector and for obvious reasons,” Perry said.

Perry’s thesis for the international energy audience that makes up CERAWeek was that energy security begets economic prosperity, and they are both driven by a “new energy realism” that finds the United States as a world’s soon-to-be leading producer of oil and natural gas at the same time it is leading the globe in cleanliness and efficiency, all of which has been driven by a “cascade of technological innovations.”

While promoting the Trump administration’s wholesale approach to deregulation and the Texas model he helped create featuring low taxes and reasonable rules for the energy sector, at CERAWeek Perry presented a more global and bipartisan viewpoint, saying, “It is by embracing this new energy realism that we will all move toward greater energy security and a brighter, more prosperous future.

“Let all nations embrace it – and the spirit of imagination and innovation that drives it – for their own sake and for the sake of the world.”

At about the same time Perry was busy in Texas, the Colorado Petroleum Council, a division of the American Petroleum Institute (API), was tallying the results from the deployment of oil and gas industry technology and innovation advances, noting that at the end of 2017, emissions from Colorado’s development were expected to drop by 33% as the industry in the state continues to develop new ways to reduce its emissions footprint.

Colorado industry representatives said that from 1990 to 2015 gas production in the state rose by 52%, while methane emissions were cut by 16.3%. The Colorado Petroleum Council officials attributed this directly to “heavy industry investing in more efficient equipment” spurred by new technology, and advanced methods and equipment to better detect and deal with leaks.

“Since 2000, the gas and oil industries have invested $15 billion in non-hydrocarbon technologies, such as wind, solar, biofuels and geothermal technology, and in total the industries have invested $90 billion to develop zero- and low-carbon emission technologies,” said a spokesperson for the Colorado council.

Late in March, the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NAS) issued its report calling for more research on a nationwide basis to develop a gridded and verifiable inventory of U.S. methane emissions, something the industry has been wrestling with for years.

The NAS report, sponsored by Perry’s DOE, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), has been quickly championed by environmental groups, such as the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). It is another area where technological advances are driving the industry forward.

Echoing EDF’s long-standing challenges to the industry, the NAS report concludes that technology applications in the oil and gas production sector are “one of the quickest and most efficient ways to curtail methane emissions.” NAS noted technology is readily available to fix methane leaks. And many federal government and industry sources would concur, citing extensive past research and pilot projects in the area.

In April this year, EDF offered plans for a methane tracking satellite called MethaneSAT that can identify methane emissions from human-made sources as part of an EDF-led collaborative effort along with researchers at Harvard University and part of the Smithsonian Institute.

EDF President Fred Krupp said work on the mission got under way in the initial months of 2018, with the goal for a liftoff in late 2020 or early 2021. The European Space Agency has a satellite that tracks greenhouse gas emissions including methane, but MethaneSAT is aimed to do more, applying a much higher resolution, according to Krupp.    

In the LNG space, the multibillion-dollar liquefaction and storage technologies are mature and well established, according to Octavio Simoes, president of Sempra Energy LNG & Midstream. But headway continues to be made in efficiencies, similar to the exploration and production, and pipeline segments of oil and gas. There are no “game-changers” on the LNG horizon, but the efficiency gains add up, Simoes pointed out.

Evolving Process

“In the design of the facilities we see continued improvements, whether you’re talking about the turbines or in the design for more efficiency because the liquefaction process is a very energy intensive process requiring lots of energy to cool the gas to levels in which they become liquid,” he said. “That process continues to evolve, and the technology companies keep coming up with new ideas and tweaks to the process to make it more efficient and safer.

“On the shipping it is the same. You recently have ships built to re-liquefy the cargo so less of it is lost in transport; those developments continue, and there is less and less of the cargoes dissipated in transport.”

Essentially for LNG, design advances have led to greater efficiencies of an already efficient process, said Simoes, who sees a continuous line of small improvements.

Early in 2018, technology advancements in floating LNG facilities were highlighted by U.S.-based (Kansas) engineering/contractor Black & Veatch (BV) with the completion of the first barge-based floating storage and regasification units (FSRU), a growing niche within the expanding LNG worldwide trade. BV cited cost and logistical advantages for the evolving technology. A barge-based FSRU holding a 600 MMscf/d capacity (26,000 cubic meters of LNG) was delivered at the end of 2017 to Belgium-based shipper Exmar.

BV’s Senior VP and Managing Director Bob Germinder sees increasing global demand for what he called “flexible, mid-sized LNG import solutions.” BV and others in the industry have contributed to the realization of a barge-based LNG system. Exmar and others are convinced that LNG offshore technology is viable in the worldwide gas market now envisioned.

In the pipeline sector, the Chicago area-based Gas Technology Institute (GTI) has ongoing work on approved substitutes for disruptive and sometimes higher risk hydro-testing of large-diameter, high-pressure transmission lines. As part of the verification requirements for maximum allowable operating pressures (MAOP), GTI is facilitating “engineering critical assessments” (ECA) for MAOP verification as an alternative to hydro-testing, as well as pipe surface-based materials testing and analysis.

According to GTI, a comprehensive pilot study on this multifaceted subject is underway in 2018, using both material and mechanical models in conjunction with in-line inspection (ILI) and in-the-ditch materials testing. The ILI technology will include axial circumferential magnetic flux leakage (MFL) for detection of pipe wall loss and defects and electromagnetic acoustic transducer (EMAT) sensors for pipe and weld seam crack detection.

The work also involves what GTI engineers call “a scientifically rigorous and technically justified method” to verify pipeline material properties, using surface-based pipe materials testing, statistical analysis and modeling. A limited set of small pipe coupon cut-outs will be used as well for validations and calibrations.

GTI said researchers expect to have the field testing phase of the study wrapped up in the fourth quarter this year. This effort is one of nearly 500 projects in play this year at GTI, which last year had an array of projects with an overall revenue stream of $110 million.

GTI has established a Center for Methane Research that began with the mission of cutting through the unprecedented amount of new studies and research data on the subject, some of which is contradictory, GTI officials point out. “The ultimate goal is to identify pathways to a net reduction in methane’s contribution to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.”

Launched in 2016, the GTI methane center sees itself as a technical information resource on methane’s presence and impact, particularly in the interconnected role of natural gas production, delivery and use. It has the backing of nearly 20 energy-related companies.

“We’re always looking to spread the word on great new technologies we’re developing and finding companies that are interested in implementing them,” said GTI spokeswoman Diane Miller. In April when Miller offered her insights, GTI International’s Chicago-based four-year-old startup, Locus View Solutions (LVS) Inc., created to help advance commercial-scale mobile geospatial products and services for gas operators was sold to NortecView Ltd. LVC’s construction sector product is a mobile application providing a paperless way to capture and validate real-time construction data.

Separately, GTI is working to reduce damage from excavation activity by using real-time GIS technology and cellular-connected location/motion sensors attached to construction equipment. Stakeholders are alerted of potential excavation damages by real-time tracking equipment, gas system infrastructure GIS data, and what Miller calls “activity characterization algorithms.”

GTI has worked extensively with Operations Technology Development (OTD), San Francisco-based Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E), and other utilities to develop and demonstrate the technology. Dubbed “excavation encroachment notification” (EEN), 150 devices were deployed by GTI in a pilot project with PG&E under a California Energy Commission grant.

“PG&E will continue to use the devices after the field test ends to help bring the technology to market,” Miller said.

‘Listening Session’

In mid-March, the Trump administration Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) went to the heart of the western coal country in Gillette, Wyo., to hold a “listening session” on its proposal to repeal the Obama administration Clean Power Plan, which prompted a Washington, D.C.-based energy consultant to suggest in a blog that attendees from inside the Beltway visit the nearby Wyoming Integrated Test Center (ITC) at Dry Fork Station to learn about the soon-to-open center’s anticipated work to improve capture, sequestration and management of carbon emissions, which is the ultimate savior for coal-fired generation. The ITC specializes in carbon reuse and recycling.

When Gov. Matt Mead, an early supporter for creating the center in his state, first introduced the concept, this is how he described the center:

The ITC will provide space for researchers to test carbon capture, utilization and sequestration (CCUS) technologies using 20 MW of actual coal based flue gas. Along with testing capture technologies, additional research will look at taking flue gas and turning it into a marketable commodity. The research at the ITC will lead to new opportunities in petrochemicals as well as other commercial uses of carbon dioxide. Research at the facility will help ensure the viability of the coal industry, which supports jobs, local and state economies and keeps electricity prices low for millions of people around the globe.

The ITC is slated to be one of a handful of such facilities around the world and only the second one in the United States. While many carbon capture technologies are being developed and studied in laboratory settings, the ITC will be one of the few research and testing facilities at an operating coal-fired power plant. Laboratories cannot mimic the real world conditions of a functioning coal-fired power plant. The ITC will allow for real world testing at an active power plant and alleviates typical concerns over being able to transfer technology from a lab to a plant.

The emphasis on markets and commercialization permeates many of the technological advances in the oilfields and pipeline trenches, ranging from dealing with wellsite gas flaring to inline inspections of high-pressure pipelines.

At the outset of 2018, Los Angeles-based Southern California Gas Co. launched a somewhat futuristic research effort, seeking to expand the use natural gas as a raw material for combining hydrogen energy and various carbon-based byproducts.

The Sempra Energy utility’s vision has won federal energy funding support and research collaboration with the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) and West Virginia University (WVU). The collaborative project bids to create both hydrogen for fuel cell vehicles and industrial processes, along with carbon fiber used in various medical device, aerospace, and building products.

The hope is that ultimately, the work could lead to a commercial-scale process by advancing the catalyst deployed and a better understanding of the characteristics of the carbon that it produces, according to the developer/researchers.

However, it’s still unclear what volumes of natural gas would be used in a commercial-scale project. SoCalGas said the collaborative project is led by a Santa Monica, Calif.-based startup that was formed late on 2017, C4-MCP LLC (C4). The startup is part of C4 Composites also formed last year to create “the carbon-to-value economy” by transforming atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) into “carbon-negative and price-competitive materials, chemicals and fuels.”

 “We have an enormous amount of natural gas in North America, so we’re going to find ways to take the hydrogen off of it, and instead of CO2 coming off the process, we’re going to effectively get a building material,” said Jim McDermott, C4’s CEO.

The partnership is working on ways to offset the relatively high cost of hydrogen production with the sale of carbon fiber and carbon nanotubes (CNT). The goal is to slash hydrogen costs to under $2/kilogram. At that price level, hydrogen-fueled vehicles could be competitive with conventional gasoline/diesel vehicles, SoCalGas officials have said. “In addition, this technology will virtually eliminate CO2 emissions from the methane-to-hydrogen process.”

A former investment banker in the power sector and founder/CEO of various successful internet-related startups, McDermott said the anticipated carbon fiber or CNTs eventually will be applied to cement, steel substitutes, and replacements for building products. “Essentially we’re going to use that byproduct and sequester it into the building model. And the natural gas industry people really don’t get this yet,” he said. “I frankly think it is bigger than fracking [hydraulic fracturing] because it will allow the fracks to have a useful avenue other than combustion.” 

Pre-commercialization of the venture has secured funding of $750,000 split between federal and private sector sources. The technology is to be developed under a cooperative research and development agreement, with $375,000 from the U.S. Department of Energy and $375,000 from C4 and SoCalGas.

“We need to learn from other industries where technological disruptions driven by consumer demand challenged the status quo,” said Mauricio Gutierrez, CEO at Princeton, N.J.-based NRG Energy Inc. “You only have to look at the hotel or taxi industries as clear examples of well-established business models that experienced a complete overhaul as a result of technology working in combination with [changing] consumer demands.” P&GJ

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