Virtual pipelines to the rescue

Virtual pipelines go where no pipes have gone before.

By Gas Technology August 22, 2018

Underground Construction’s 2016 survey figures of oil & gas pipeline construction indicate 34,027 miles of pipelines are currently planned and under construction in North America. Of these, 21,412 miles represent projects in the engineering and design phase while 12,615 miles are in various stages of construction. However, pipelines don’t go everywhere. Plans for pipelines depend on population density and allocation of funds.

How do those in areas not served by a pipeline obtain the natural gas they need? When pipelines are constrained, additional pipeline product transportation options include transporting product via truck or rail. The "virtual pipeline" is a clean energy infrastructure that connects industrial facilities, institutions, and municipalities to the natural gas pipeline through a network of pipeline terminals, trucks, and onsite decompression stations. 

Virtual pipeline basics

In effect, a virtual pipeline serves as a temporary solution where a pipeline is not yet available. According to Rico Biasetti, CEO of NG Advantage, a virtual pipeline is a natural gas supply process in which natural gas is sourced from a transmission pipeline, dried, chilled, and compressed to 3,600 psi. "The compressed gas is then loaded into high-tech, carbon fiber tubes housed within a trailer. The CNG is then transported to a customer site where it is offloaded from the trailer, warmed, and decompressed, thus reducing the psi to accommodate a customer’s specific requirements," he said.

Examples of virtual pipeline customers include large manufacturers and institutions that do not have access to pipeline natural gas or utilities that do not have ample supply during peak periods of usage (e.g., winter and summer). In fact, Colchester, Vt.-based NG Advantage served National Grid, one of the largest investor-owned utilities in the U.S., with a three-month winter peaking project at a facility in New York State. During this winter’s extremely low temperatures, NG Advantage offered the utility a CNG solution capable of delivering 15,000 M cu ft/day to support spikes in demand.

Benefits include greatly reduced capital expenditure and investment risk, quicker implementation versus pipeline extension, increased flexibility, decreased maintenance costs for those switching from coal or heavy fuel oils, enhanced control over supply chain, and the solution is readily scalable, according to Biasetti. 

Virtual pipeline applications—asphalt plants

To maintain the temperature and consistency of finished products, asphalt plants typically are located close to the paving project site. In many cases, these plants are not located near a natural gas pipeline, which means reliance on other sources of fuel that may be more expensive, demand greater amounts of equipment maintenance, or emit greater CO2 emissions. A competitor that is located on a pipeline may be able to underbid a facility that is not on a pipeline.

NG Advantage offers a solution for asphalt plants that burn more than 30,000 MMBtu a year and are located in proximity to one of the company’s existing compressor stations. NG Advantage delivers CNG to asphalt facilities with no access to a pipeline via a virtual pipeline that consists of 40 ft. carbon-fiber trailers that are hauled to the customer site. The gas is drawn directly from the trailer, decompressed, heated, and passed to the customer’s regulator, eliminating the need for onsite storage.

The asphalt plant is responsible for the site work required to make its yard able to accept two or three trailers, bring communications, electricity, and a new low-pressure gas pipe to the decompression station. A second burner is recommended to attain dual-fuel capability. Dual-fuel capability facilitates redundancy of supply and protects against price swings.

Advantages of a virtual pipeline for asphalt plants include:

  • Cost savings—By replacing oil-based fuels with natural gas, customers can realize considerable savings. Some customers say they could not have been competitive with plants located on pipelines without a CNG supply.
  • Reduced emissions—Customers can reduce their carbon footprint by nearly 30% based on their original fuel source.
  • Reduced maintenance—Customers can reduce their downtime caused by scheduled baghouse and burner maintenance.

Virtual pipeline applications—biomethane transportation

Transportation of biomethane for injection into a pipeline is another virtual pipeline application. A biomethane virtual pipeline is an alternative mode of distribution for remote biomethane projects with no natural gas pipeline access. It uses lightweight, carbon fiber tube trailers to safely transport biomethane. Trucks haul the trailers from landfill gas projects and anaerobic digesters to pipelines or other offsite locations, thereby replacing in-the-ground natural gas distribution pipes.

The U.S. biomethane industry is poised for significant expansion. A challenge faced by agricultural, municipal, and landfill gas sites is the ability to deliver their biomethane to market, according to Biasetti. Despite the challenges encountered by producers to harness the power of biomethane, the economic and environmental benefits are significant. As a provider of trucked CNG service in the country, NG Advantage operates a virtual pipeline service that can transport biomethane by truck from anaerobic digesters, landfills, and wastewater treatment plants to pipelines or other remote locations not directly served by the natural gas distribution system.

According to NG Advantage, those who can benefit from virtual pipeline biomethane transportation include:

  • Projects too remote for reinjection directly into a natural gas pipeline.
  • Projects generating electricity that face expiring power purchase agreements (PPAs) and diminished revenues in wholesale electric markets.
  • Projects flaring gas because alternatives are not economical.
  • Projects seeking to access diverse markets and increase revenue stream.
  • Projects looking to participate in renewable identification number (RIN) markets.

Virtual pipeline applications—peaking CNG supply

CNG is a flexible, low-cost, and clean-burning fuel used to complement pipeline natural gas to provide dynamic supplies of heat and electricity that respond to erratic temperatures and uncertain flows. During peak summer and winter months, when heating and electricity demands are highest, the supply of natural gas can be constrained. NG Advantage offers peaking services to ensure that CNG supplies exceed demand. Gas and electricity providers can deliver consistent service to their customers and avoid volatile price spikes. Peaking supply to electrical power generation facilities include:

  • Continuous operation—Switching to a backup fuel can be costly and cause lost revenue when the price of electricity is high. By staying on natural gas, generators can be operated when it is most profitable without the burden of switching to oil.
  • Load-following—Seasonal weather can be unpredictable causing fuel demand to fluctuate. By using peaking supply, power producers can receive supplemental supply only when it is most economical.
  • Environmental compliance—Generators receive the environmental benefits of natural gas by avoiding the need to switch to dirtier alternative fuel sources for electricity generation. In addition, the intermittent supply of renewable power can be balanced with hourly supplies of trucked CNG.
  • Load sculpting—Power generators with temperature-sensitive loads can plan for and respond to erratic demand by sculpting their gas supply with hourly nominations.

Peaking supply to gas distribution companies include:

  • Outage protection—Unplanned pipeline outages can pose a significant challenge for local distribution companies. CNG can be injected into the distribution piping during repairs to guarantee uninterrupted flow.
  • Pressure support—Gas can be injected into the local distribution network to increase pipeline pressure and provide incremental volume to ensure all end users receive reliable gas supply.
  • Peak shaving—Mobile natural gas supply can be delivered precisely where it is needed and when it is needed with a mobile fleet of high-volume CNG trailers.

Editor’s note: NG Advantage is the primary source of information for this article.

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This article originally appeared in the Gas Technology Summer 2018 issue.