The ferocious winter storm that left Texas and many other parts of the country reeling in February has brought acute attention to the resilience of our energy infrastructure.
That’s especially true for large industrial facilities, where shutdowns can lead to multi-million-dollar losses and damages. With natural gas supplies threatened by shutdowns or curtailment, many of these facilities were able to turn to synthetic natural gas (SNG) supplies created from on-site propane to rescue their business — even on extremely short notice.
A glass bottle plant in Henryetta, Oklahoma, for instance, saw its theoretically firm natural gas supply curtailed by a force majeure clause when the pipeline couldn’t provide the needed supply. The factory saw its supply of roughly 250 dekatherms of natural gas per hour cut to about 50, with the possibility of being turned off completely. Facing the threat of severe financial losses, the manufacturer called Elk River, Minnesota–based Utility Energy Systems (UES) to see whether they could have a backup system ready in less than 48 hours.
“If they don’t have any thermal input into their refractory brick oven, the bricks will start contracting and pulling apart,” says Boyd Kneen, general manager of UES, which builds propane-based SNG systems and provides propane vaporizers through RentaVaporizer.com. “If you let it cool down, it collapses upon itself and you need to rebrick it.” The repair costs can amount to about $3 million, but the losses from glass production can be even more costly.
Backup for curtailed natural gas
By Tuesday morning, UES had a crew headed 800 miles south with an 18,000-gallon portable propane tank, two combination vaporizer-blender units, and other equipment needed to produce SNG. By Wednesday, the system was operational, supplementing the factory’s curtailed natural gas supply.
SNG systems are also known as propane-air systems because they use blenders to mix propane and air in precise percentages to replicate the performance of natural gas. The resulting blend can supplement an existing natural gas supply or replace it completely, making it an important component of the backup energy supply strategy for many facilities.
Emergency shutdowns are only one of the reasons these facilities may need backup systems in place. The systems have become fairly common in northern regions where natural gas suppliers offer lower curtailment rates for facilities that implement backup SNG systems. The facilities receive lower natural gas rates year-round in exchange for agreeing to periodic disruptions of their supply during periods of peak demand, such as a harsh winter storm.
Similarly, if natural gas prices spike in a period of low supply or high demand, facilities with SNG systems can use propane as a price hedge, managing their energy costs while also ensuring the health and safety of their facilities.
Replacing natural gas for rural development
Another application for SNG is for development in rural areas lacking natural gas infrastructure. When a factory producing farm machinery in Goodfield, Illinois, wanted to double the size of its production, the gas utility told the company it was impossible to provide adequate natural gas supply. Rather than canceling the expansion, the manufacturer built an SNG plant to supply the additional gas needed for production. “It’s a facility that’s still there today, and that just allowed economic development to happen,” Kneen says.
When designing a factory or adding resilient energy sources to a facility, architects and building operators can work with UES or other SNG system providers for help with everything from system design to engineering and regulatory approval. Technology has also rapidly improved in recent years, allowing SNG systems to be remotely monitored and operated. Propane companies can even provide the fuel storage for these systems at their own facilities, providing a backup energy supply without creating large amounts of additional infrastructure.
With its backup system in place, the Oklahoma glass bottle manufacturer went on to have UES install small satellite SNG plants for price hedging and to keep its furnaces operating in any condition. But while the factory serves as a heartening success story, it crystallizes the need for architects, engineers, and energy managers to be proactive about securing their backup energy supplies. In fact, UES received an influx of requests for similar systems, not all of which can be accommodated in 48 hours. Facilities that have a plan in place now can be ready so operators can rest a little easier during the next severe storm.