DOE official shares views on future of natural gas

By Brian Schimmoller, PE Managing Editor

April 25, 2002 — Power Engineering magazine recently interviewed Dr. Joseph P. Strakey, Director of the Department of Energy’s Strategic Center for Natural Gas (SCNG), to hear his views on the growing importance of natural gas in the nation’s energy mix and the role government should play in fostering technological advances related to natural gas development, supply and use. The SCNG is an arm of the Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory ( https://netl.doe.gov/scng).

With natural gas becoming the fuel of choice for most new power generation, for home heating, and for a wide range of new technologies (fuel cells, microturbines, etc.), what is the SCNG doing to improve the supply of natural gas? Are all programs internal to the U.S., or are there efforts to work with other countries in securing long-term natural gas resources?

In the next 20 years, natural demand in the United States is expected to increase 50 percent, due primarily to the growing use of natural gas for power generation. Fortunately we have an abundant supply of gas available from many regions of the country: the Gulf States, off-shore in the Gulf of Mexico, the Rocky Mountains and Appalachia. We produce about 85 percent of the gas we consume from within our borders; the rest is either imported from Canada or, to a lesser degree, as liquefied natural gas from other countries.

President Bush’s National Energy Policy clearly identifies an important role for natural gas as a key component of our nation’s energy future. At the Strategic Center for Natural Gas (SCNG), we are supporting the goals of the President’s energy policy by developing advanced natural gas technology from the wellhead to the burnertip.

We are developing better ways to locate and assess our nation’s gas resources and reserves. We’re working with the gas industry to develop better drilling, completion and stimulation technologies. We’re supporting efforts to keep gas flowing from stripper wells. And, we’re developing new approaches for finding and extracting gas from deeper and more geologically complex formations and from low-permeability formations. Looking toward the longer-term, we are pursuing a multinational program with Canada, Japan, and Germany to understand whether gas hydrates – methane trapped in ice – hold potential as a future energy source.

There is some concern, in the power generation industry at least, that we’re placing too much emphasis on natural gas and that supply will not be able to keep up with demand at current growth rates? How does the SCNG address these concerns?

The power generation sector is projected to become the largest consumer of natural gas over the next 20 years. Approximately one-third of all gas produced will be used to generate electricity. Today, more than 90 percent of all new electric power generation plants are being built to burn natural gas. We will probably continue to see price fluctuations for the foreseeable future, but the fundamental economic and environmental drivers that exist today will continue to favor natural gas. Even though we expect to see significant additions of coal capacity, especially in the latter part of the next decade, natural gas will continue to be one of the nation’s primary sources of fuel for power generation for many years to come.

One of our most important efforts is to validate for the power industry that adequate supplies of natural gas will be available at reasonable costs. We’re working with other agencies, such as the U.S. Geological Survey, to identify and characterize the nation’s natural gas reserves. From this effort, we can identify the technology requirements that will be necessary to keep gas flowing from these reserves to the nation’s power plants.

A related goal of our resources program is the preservation of key gas industry data. The stewardship of America’s marginal gas resources continues to change hands frequently through the sale and merger of different companies and/or their holdings. With the growing prominence of small, independent producers, large volumes of valuable data, including well logs, production data, and even location, are being lost. To address this problem, the NETL developed a compilation of comprehensive gas reservoir data in its Gas Atlas Series and Gas Information System (GASIS) database. The Gas Information System (GASIS) was developed by NETL to be the first public domain national gas database. GASIS’s “reservoir data system” provides information on nearly 20,000 significant gas reservoirs; the “source directory” documents natural gas supply-related databases and information centers.

How is the SCNG balancing near-term demands with long-term demands? In other words, what programs are in place to encourage and improve current natural gas development, production and distribution? What programs are in place to ensure natural gas remains a viable fuel in the long-term? Will conventional gas resources be sufficient to satisfy demand for the foreseeable future, or will new resources such as methane hydrates be required? What role will LNG play?

About 11/2 years ago, we launched a program to develop the technologies needed to ensure that tens of thousands of the nation’s stripper gas wells are not prematurely abandoned. Many of these wells, which are generally operated by small companies with little or no R&D capability, contain significant gas resources that may be lost forever if solutions to problems that lead to premature production decline are not quickly found. This led to the formation of the Stripper Well Consortium, an industry-driven consortium that is focused on the development, demonstration, and deployment of new technologies needed to improve the production performance of natural gas and petroleum stripper wells. The Consortium is comprised of natural gas and petroleum producers, service companies, industry consultants, universities, and industrial trade organizations. The SCNG, along with NETL’s National Petroleum Technology Office and the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, provide base funding and guidance to the consortium. By pooling financial and human resources, the SWC membership can economically develop technologies that will extend the life and production of the nation’s stripper wells. You can visit the Consortium’s website at https://energy.psu.edu/swc/ for further information.

In the area of methane hydrate research, DOE supported some of the very first studies. With gas supply issues again in the forefront, the SCNG has framed an aggressive new program in methane hydrate research. Our goal is to support the basic science needed to answer all the important questions about this potentially enormous new source of natural gas. Our hydrate page, which is https://netl.doe.gov/scng/hydrate/, provides information on our work to understand the basic nature of hydrates and their role relative to sea-floor stability and long-term changes in climate as we search for ways to tap the vast energy potential of hydrates.

We are also working hard to utilize our gas resources more efficiently. As part of SCNG’s Fuel Cell Program, we sponsor R&D with industry, National Laboratories and other research organizations to meet DOE’s Vision 21 goal of a 75 percent efficient gas-fired power plant. The programs’ benefits include reducing the cost of fuel cell stacks, shortening development time, and exploiting the synergy between fuel cells and turbines, resulting in fuel flexibility and reduced manufacturing costs for application in civilian and military markets. Our major initiative for reducing the cost of fuel cells is through the Solid-State Energy Conversion Alliance, known as SECA. If we can achieve our cost target of $400/kW for small 5 kW units, we can clear the highest barrier to the widespread commercial application of clean and efficient fuel cell technology. By bringing the nation’s vast industrial and academic resources to bear in an integrated and collaborative effort, SECA will produce a modular and mass-produced core fuel cell component that will serve many markets and significantly reduce the costs of installing and operating fuel cells. You can visit the SECA website at https://seca.doe.gov/ for further information.

LNG has and continues to be one method to import natural gas from low-cost gas producing countries. Several years ago, U.S. importers had shut down or mothballed LNG terminals. Those terminals have now been reactivated and numerous plans are under consideration to develop new LNG transfer facilities. Although our R&D program is not focusing on LNG, NETL is pursuing novel methods to convert natural gas to liquid fuels. These technologies offer the potential to convert “stranded gas” – natural gas where no pipelines or infrastructure exists to transport it – into a form that can be brought to market. We are pursuing several options to turn this uneconomical/inaccessible resource into a viable resource.

Is the SCNG involved in developing or promoting advanced, high efficiency end-use technologies that will reduce the consumption of natural gas per unit of output? Many believe a huge investment is needed to upgrade and significantly expand the pipeline infrastructure that delivers natural gas around North America. From a government, research and technological perspective, what can SCNG do to facilitate this process?

Our natural gas utilization program provides the means for efficiently and economically using natural gas while maintaining environmental quality in both new and existing markets. Development of advanced technology creates significantly more efficient and environmentally superior ways to use natural gas. In addition to our fuel cell program, our High Efficiency Engines and Turbines (HEET) program is continuing to develop improved turbine technology for meeting future market needs. The drivers are higher efficiency, fuel flexibility, lower life cycle cost, improved reliability, and better environmental performance. The technology advances will be applicable to simple-cycle industrial gas turbines for distributed generation, industrial, and cogeneration markets, as well as large gas turbine combined-cycle systems for the utility sector, and other utilization and conversion applications.

The SCNG has been developing technology to ensure the reliability and security of the nation’s natural gas pipeline infrastructure. In 2000, we initiated an infrastructure reliability program, which encompasses more than 30 projects, to develop remote sensing, real time diagnostics, pipeline detection, anatomic remote repair and numerous other technologies to ensure pipeline integrity.

What is the objective of the upcoming “Natural Gas Technology – Investment in a Healthy U.S. Energy Future” conference May 14-15 in Houston? What does the SCNG hope to learn that will guide its programs?

We are very excited about this conference, and extremely pleased to be working closely with GTI to plan and convene it. You will notice from the conference program that there are relatively few government speakers. That was deliberate on our part. We want to better understand the U.S. gas industry perspective so that we can more wisely shape government sponsored research to be of the greatest national benefit. I feel very strongly that we have achieved this by attracting high-level speakers and presenters from companies and organizations that are key components of our country’s natural gas industry – from supply through end use.

What SCNG hopes to come away with is first-hand information of what we need to do, from the standpoint of technology development and policy support, to ensure that natural gas continues to be a reliable and environmentally sound component of our National Energy Policy.

As for the power generation professionals who will attend, we want them to continue to have a strong, clearly heard voice in helping to shape our nation’s energy future. The natural gas market, like any market for that matter, does not operate in a vacuum. There is always interface between the market and government, on a number of levels…policy, regulation, economic incentives, and R&D needs, to name a few. Those voices need to be heard on the interrelated issues of a rapidly changing natural gas marketplace, the role of technology, and the research that is needed.

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