In battling climate change, natural gas pipelines are an immensely powerful, flexible class of infrastructure.
Gas pipelines can carry a variety of fuels. These include hydrogen, bioenergy and waste carbon — in addition to natural gas.
Pipelines also enjoy network advantages. By serving multiple locations, they increase market efficiency.
These benefits will become increasingly valuable in coming years, As a result, pipelines will play a central role in future energy infrastructure, particularly in Asia.
As China ramps up outward investment through the newly-created Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank to achieve the One Belt, One Road vision– the long-term usefulness of pipelines will become apparent.
As part of 30-year delivery contracts for natural gas, China’s agreed to fund two Russian gas pipelines: the Power of Siberia and Altai.
Thirty years is a long time. A mere 36 years ago, Deng Xiaoping opened up China’s economy to the world. Since then, China’s economy has been transformed.
Looking ahead to the next 30 years, energy markets will be similarly transformed. Driving this change will be carbon pricing, globally-agreed emissions reductions, trade reform and innovation gains.
Gas pipelines will play a big role. That’s because they can carry other forms of energy than just natural gas.
The most notable of these is hydrogen. Properly constructed pipelines can simultaneously carry both natural gas and hydrogen. What this means is that excess solar or wind from remote locations can be turned into hydrogen to be pumped down pipelines for conversion into electricity later. In other words, hydrogen can be used as a large scale energy storage medium.
Hydrogen pipelines have been around since 1940. They are now common in the US and Europe.
The flexibility of pipelines doesn’t end there. In British Columbia, Canada, natural gas pipelines also can carry biofuels.
Then, of course, there’s carbon dioxide (CO2). In Norway, offshore natural gas pipelines have transported C02 for storage under the offshore Arctic Ocean Sleipner gas field.
In Saskatchewan, Canada, the Boundary Dam power plant is now the world’s first commercial scale demonstration of carbon capture and storage. Carbon from coal-fired power plant is transported by pipeline for injection underground.
As energy markets change over the next 30 years, the synergies between natural gas pipelines and large scale power lines will become more apparent.
Consider the possibilities:
When gas pipelines networks become congested, the natural gas, hydrogen, bioenergy they can’t carry could be turned into electricity. This could then delivered down power lines, creating a second means of getting energy to market. This increases efficiency.
Similarly, if high-capacity electricity power lines become congested, excess electricity could be turned into hydrogen (for instance) and delivered through gas pipelines. Such interoperability in future infrastructure will prove immensely valuable in coming years as energy markets are transformed in ways we may not have imagined yet.
As a result, maximizing design flexibility will be crucial
Russia, for instance, has large and undeveloped wind, geothermal and biomass resources in eastern Siberia. China’s State Grid Corp has recognized this. State Grid has proposed building power lines to carry Arctic Ocean wind power to China. These power lines might naturally parallel, among other routes, those taken by the Power of Siberia or Altai.
Similarly, wind resources exist in the East China Sea and South China Sea. Power lines built to develop these resources could be laid along side natural gas pipelines. These pipelines, in turn, could provide a route to market for natural gas resources and, over the longer term, methane hydrates, in the South China Sea.
If this occurred, it could open the way for other ocean energy sources to be developed — such as ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC). OTEC exploits temperature differentials between the ocean’s surface and deeper waters to create energy. One test plant is now being designed for deployment off China’s Hainan Island.
Further, subsea natural gas pipelines could open the way for compressed air storage, in which compression is provided ‘free’ by the weight of sea water.
Climate change represents an enormous challenge for humanity. How new energy infrastructure is built in the coming 30-50 years will largely determine mankind’s quality of life beyond 2050.