Natural gas was first discovered by the Chinese around 500 B.C. while drilling for underground saltwater reservoirs. Upon their discovery, the Chinese found they could use the flammable gas to boil saltwater from the reservoir to extract the salt. To facilitate the use of gas for boiling saltwater, the Chinese transported the natural gas through bamboo pipelines, and, thus, the first natural gas pipeline was placed into service (see notes 1 and 2).
Over following centuries, the natural gas industry progressed in terms of technology and materials used in pipeline construction — moving from wood, to cast iron, to bare steel and currently to coated steel and plastic. These advances led to a robust expansion of the natural gas pipeline infrastructure in the United States. Today, there are more than 2.5 million miles of natural gas pipeline and associated infrastructure in service in the United States.
These technological evolutions allowed for vast expansions of natural gas service, but there remains an underlying issue which the industry must continue to address: The aging and deterioration of the transmission and distribution infrastructure. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, more than half of the pipelines currently in service have been in use for more than 50 years, with a small proportion in service for nearly 100 years.
Due to programs designed to remove and replace these types of pipes in the transmission and distribution grids that have been implemented over the last thirty years, less than 5 percent of the infrastructure currently in service involves either cast iron or bare steel pipe. This investment serves to significantly enhance the integrity of the United States’ natural gas transmission and distribution systems.
The industry continues to work to further ensure the safety, reliability and security of pipeline infrastructure, but replacement programs are only one part of the puzzle. Design parameters, the development of longer-lasting materials and enhanced construction techniques are also critical to the long-term growth of the natural gas industry. The industry also recognizes the need to improve the monitoring and maintenance technologies keeping watch over existing pipeline infrastructure and new pipeline coming online as part of the plan.
This recognition has been driven in considerable measure by an ever-changing regulatory environment. Public safety concerns in the aftermath of pipeline rupture incidents have ushered in additional regulations and congressional mandates. Complying with regulatory mandates, while balancing service with safety, has increased operational complexity to utility companies as they manage resource allocation.
Even with a plan of action in place to address maintenance and operational challenges, there is a growing need for accurate and risk-weighted data concerning assessing pipeline risk. Addressing this need will allow for the prioritization of maintenance and replacement activities on the aging infrastructure.
In the past, gathering data from the field has often been inefficient, redundant, and produced inaccurate results, thereby diminishing the effectiveness of the decision-making process. The resulting lack of accurate and real-time visibility into field activities is a crucial issue in striving to manage the performance and integrity of the delivery system.
Having the data needed to generate informed and responsible decisions regarding system maintenance is paramount. Given the risks involved, decisions related to system operation must be formed with accurate and timely data to preserve system safety and reliability. Therefore, possessing a process and tools designed to continually collect and convert data into its most useful form is vital to operational decision makers.
Accurate and timely information is critical since decisions may require the involvement of multiple individuals or entities before action is taken.
A prime example of the importance of timely and accurate information lies in the area of leak detection and leak management. Operators must seek to address potential leakage before pipeline failures occur. Such analysis requires the data we previously identified as lacking. The complicated and time-consuming responsibilities of pipeline structural analysis and evaluation through leak survey investigation and reporting, need to be streamlined and processed expeditiously. Many situations do not support a lengthy decision-making process and require readily available data to act judiciously.
Taking this one example out of many similar situations, how do we improve our ability to access this needed data? The most sensible approach is to begin taking full advantage of existing technologies for monitoring and controlling infrastructure performance. Combining the wealth of industry knowledge with new and existing technologies, the natural gas community can develop comprehensive workflows to support organizational business processes fully. However, due to budget constraints, lack of knowledge, and conflicting stakeholder priorities, many utilities are unable to leverage the best use of technology and are stymied with antiquated manual systems limiting the accuracy, timeliness, and accessibility of data.
The natural gas industry must begin to fully embrace investment of both time and budget in system maintenance and expansion technologies that offer data gathering capabilities through innovative solutions.
An enterprise-level geographic information system (GIS) solution is the starting point for the integration of information from external and internal sources into a common framework. Integrating the data aggregation process under one digital platform can reduce manual processes, eliminate the need for paper documents, and provide a central repository for the access to key system data. GIS software solutions offer the capability to digitally capture data for asset management, regulatory compliance, and maintenance management. Field workers can gather data efficiently as the software runs on a workstation, tablet, or even their smartphone. These solutions provide scalable functionality and hardware requirements to fit a utility of any size.
Accessibility to real-time data allows streamlining workflows through integrating digital automation, eliminating data redundancy, improving data accuracy, enhancing availability, and thereby improving the decision-making process. There is no doubt accurate and accessible data leads to enhanced compliance and improved operations in the utility industry.
A GIS-based data software solution offers a flow of real-time information from the field to the executive level, with toolsets enabling designated users to view information, schedule tasks, manage data, and extract reports.
Closing the gap between today’s information-gathering systems and the need for accurate, timely, and
accessible data starts with technology. Placing devices enabled with robust software solutions in the hands of inspectors and field technicians will provide clean and real-time data to stakeholders at any level of the organization.
GeoCurrent Aids Management
GeoCurrent’s suite of software solutions enables utilities and municipalities to capture and manage data to decrease risk, improve workflows, drive cost-savings, and ensure compliance with federal and state regulations. The company’s software tools address the challenges associated with the effective and efficient management of the pipeline maintenance process. GeoCurrent’s suite of software solutions is designed to enable field personnel to track field activity, provide real-time inspection data, analyze pipeline risk to support capital expenditures, and prioritize maintenance and repairs.
- FlowGIS – an innovative GIS-centric software solution for utilities, municipalities, and other organizations designed to support configurable workflows, streamline maintenance operations, and enable data-driven intelligence-based decisions. Informed decisions result in increased asset performance, enhanced safety, improved regulatory compliance and reduced operational costs.
- FieldLogIQ – a flexible and scalable tool enabling construction site supervisors and inspectors to inform stakeholders with real-time project updates and information.
- atRisk – a spatial risk analysis and data management tool helping utilities identify, mitigate, and manage risk throughout the planning and construction of infrastructure updates.
- GasScan – a barcode reading, decoding, and storage application enabling utilities to easily maintain control of asset inventory, comply with federal and state regulations, and maintain efficiency during maintenance projects.
- Import – a powerful ETL tool to enrich a GIS by integrating data from dispersed sources, including customer information systems, land-based inventories, and asset maintenance history available from various enterprise systems.
Launched in February, GeoCurrent is the technology division of Magnolia River Services Inc., which provides engineering, inspection, GIS and software solutions for utilities and pipeline infrastructure and operations.
1. Eric & Chun-Chih Hadley-Ives. “First Oil Wells.” historylines.net.
2. Abbott, Malcolm (2016). The Economics of the Gas Supply Industry. Routledge. p. 185.
Darrell Hand is technology liaison manager for Magnolia River. Sean Zintel serves as the director of GIS services for Magnolia River.