Let’s admit it, infrastructure is a boring word. There’s nothing sexy about it. It implies disruptions to our lives as we deal with delays and detours for construction and repair projects. Yet it is absolutely necessary, and infrastructure is what needs to be upgraded in our water, gas, and electric grids.
My previous articles discussed investments that are ongoing or needed in the electrical grid to modernize generation, transmission, distribution, and consumption. However, the same issues exist for gas and water too. In some aspects, the needs are even more striking. But how we build our infrastructure and what we build for our infrastructure also says a great deal about how innovative is our thinking. And unfortunately, right now that thinking is “like for like”, and merely replicates existing energy models with known weaknesses in reliability and resiliency instead of building infrastructure based on new models.
Natural gas is seen by some in the energy business as a panacea to all energy concerns. It’s domestic. It’s cleaner than coal. However, it requires significant infrastructure investments. No matter how much innovation you put into the extraction technologies for fossil fuels (which by the way had HUGE federal government assistance), the supply chains still require buildouts of pipelines to transport it to refineries and on to points of consumption. We simply don’t have sufficient pipeline capacity to transport it to all the places that want it in the USA. It’s an infrastructure play that has a number of challenges.
The natural gas that is extracted must be processed, just like oil must be refined, or electricity must be generated. These industrial operations expend lots of energy in processing gas into what is considered pure gas for end use consumption. The transport of processed natural gas in pipelines requires more energy to compress it and move it in pipelines, and compressor stations, like electricity substations, are placed along major transmission corridors to boost pressure. This map shows the interstate natural gas pipelines that transmit highly compressed natural gas. Pipelines have physical constraints – there is only so much space available for gas, and they require electricity to compress the gas in the pipelines. Therefore, when there is a significant electricity outage in a region, it can also impact the transmission and distribution of natural gas.
According to the US Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration records, there are over 2 million miles of distribution pipeline. As we saw in San Bruno, California two years ago, failure to properly monitor and maintain distribution pipelines has consequences. Smart Grid technologies including the colorfully named PIGS (Pipeline Insertable Gauges) that can monitor and transmit measurements within pipes can help reduce the odds of similar mechanical, technical, and human failures.
But with natural gas, we are once again relying on a model of centralized production, large-scale transport, and wide-scale distribution. It has all the weaknesses of today’s electrical grid. Acts of nature and human causes can cause disruptions. And because natural gas is a conveniently transportable fuel, that also means it is a very exportable fuel. Sine we won’t see any federal or state laws that require that natural gas produced in the USA must be consumed in the USA – it will go to the highest bidder – on or offshore. While gas is inexpensive now, it hasn’t always been, and if history is our guide, there’s no guarantee that it won’t be in the future.
So at the cusp of grid modernization, we are placing much of our energy future in a source that we hope will remain cheap and be readily available at any point it is needed, which requires committed investments in new infrastructure and enhancements to existing infrastructure. It is an energy source that also generates concerns about potential environmental degradation and seismic destabilization. And somehow, this all looks better than clean domestic renewables that require a different infrastructure investment, but avoid those troubling questions about price fluctuations, exportability, and environmental impacts. Yes, we have too much “like for like” thinking about infrastructure going on when we need truly revolutionary thinking.