As we as a nation begin to shift more towards natural gas, and as coal plants and aging nuclear plants are closed, the reliability of the natural gas infrastructure will be put to the test. Some industry observers even suggest the current system won’t be able to handle the increased need.
Much like a natural water drainage system, the natural gas system starts with smaller, gathering lines that gather the gas from the source and brings it to a more centralized pipeline that is wider in diameter. As it collects and comes together, increasing in volume, it goes into the transmission system comprised of larger diameter pipeline to handle more capacity and move it very long distances.
At certain points, a compressor station applies pressure to move the gas into the pipeline or to the plant.
The amount of natural gas in the pipeline at any given time, is called the linepack. The linepack can be controlled by raising or lowering the pressure in the pipe. By lowering the pressure, the gas will slow down, and companies can effectually store natural gas in the pipeline when demand has decreased. Likewise, they can speed up the delivery by increasing the pressure in the compressor stations.
The gate station is the gateway to the local utility. A number of things happen at the gate station, one of them being the addition of a slight sour smell so the end user of the natural gas can detect if there is a leak or gas in the air in the home, for example.
Once through the gate station, the natural gas flows through the distribution system which is made of smaller diameter pipe not only because there is less capacity but to be safer in more urban, more developed areas. The gas is then transferred to service lines which run from the main distribution lines to the homes. This pipeline is under an inch in diameter and passes through the meter, becoming the property of that homeowner.
Meanwhile in the Northeast, there are warnings that the region’s pipeline infrastructure is at capacity. This issue has not been on the forefront because of the unseasonably warm winters in the past two years. A cold year coupled with an incident like a frozen coal pile or a closed nuclear power plant could quickly shift the need to natural gas. This spike in need would in turn trigger a spike in price, but the infrastructure simply won’t allow the market to meet the demand.
While one solution is to provide backup systems by way of non gas – such as wind and solar power, a big solution is to build more pipeline and increase storage capacity.
Officials in congress are identifying possible weak spots particularly in the Northeast and the Midwest and legislation is underway to give FERC more authority to approve pipeline faster which would give the system more reliability.