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Building a coalition to meet America’s energy needs

Guest editorial by: David Farr

Americans are told that manufacturing is in a slump, an artifact of a receding economic era.  We see this in the news and in the nation’s jobless figures.  But it’s short-sighted to write-off the manufacturing sector.  Economic growth depends, in one way or another, on our infrastructure; and the growth, maintenance and improvement of this infrastructure relies on manufacturing.

So how do we bring about a renaissance in manufacturing to meet these infrastructure needs?  With energy representing one of the highest costs in manufacturing, the best first step is building a 21st century pipeline system to deliver the energy that already exists, more cost effectively.  The complexity of the situation demands a coalition of stakeholders to evaluate the economics, regulations and processes of energy delivery, and take action to deploy the most modern pipelines as quickly and safely as possible.

Manufacturers are only one part of the equation.  We must also join forces with technology innovators, thoughtful environmental leaders, energy producers, major energy users and the utilities to which energy is provided.  In doing this, we must balance the needs of these stakeholders by innovative use of emerging technologies and integrating them into the production, manufacturing and installation process.  Additionally, bringing more pipelines online requires working with state and federal regulatory agencies which are a key component of the process.

Fusing such a coalition of stakeholders together is essential if we are to meet the nation’s energy and economic needs, and the challenges in doing so are not insurmountable.  Many of the tools necessary to meet these needs are available and there’s general consensus that we need a bipartisan approach to solve this bipartisan problem.

The need for such a response is acute.  For example, roughly 220,000 miles of modern high-strength steel pipelines crisscross the nation carrying natural gas to fuel businesses, homes, and commerce.  Yet this infrastructure is not keeping pace with America’s energy boom.  The U.S. Energy Information Agency reported 367 miles of new natural gas pipeline in 2012, the lowest expansion of mileage since 1997.  By comparison, the National Petroleum Council estimates we need another 30,000 miles of pipeline in the next generation just to handle growing natural gas production.  Adding to this are hundreds of thousands of miles of pipeline carrying biofuels, home heating oil, propane, crude oil and other sources of energy.

Some of the tools for pipeline expansion are currently in use and have made today’s pipelines the safest in history; National Transportation Safety Board data show pipelines are safer than rail, tanker truck or waterways in transporting energy.  But we can improve on this safety record to maximize our energy advantages and keep the nation in the forefront of delivering cost-effective energy which can be accomplished by building a better pipeline through technological innovation.

Smart pipe technology is one way to do this.  Innovations like self-mending pipe and automation that quickly alerts operators to pipe failures (or provide early warning of deteriorating condition) can minimize problems that might arise.  Other advancements, like spherical sensors carried through pipelines, are increasingly used to transmit real-time data on pipeline safety and efficiency, with continuing research to improve their performance.

Monitoring buried pipelines poses its own unique challenges. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and ultrasonic measurement technology are providing early detection of risks to pipeline integrity, spotting small problems before they turn into big ones.  Next generation imaging is also under development for the military and merges MRI with ‘quadrupole resonance scanning’ to give soldiers warning of buried improvised explosive devices. Adapting this technology for the energy industry would further reduce pipeline accidents and the human, environmental and financial costs associated with them.

Another concern involves methane leaks.  A component of natural gas, methane is a greenhouse gas and its leakage has environmental implications.  Research published in the September 2009 issue of the Pipeline and Gas Journal shows nearly one-third of methane leaks are from old, cast-iron transmission lines which comprise just three-percent of our natural gas pipeline system.  Replacing old pipes with smart pipes would reduce greenhouse gas emissions and product loss, and research is also underway to reduce methane leaks from pump and compressor stations along pipeline routes.

Methane leak detection systems are also improving.  They are more precise in identifying the source, size and nature of methane leaks, and are one-thousand times more sensitive than older methods, meaning small leaks can be pinpointed and repaired early.  The cost of such technology is not insignificant, but over time it’s estimated to be more cost effective than the incremental costs associated with major leak repair and product loss.

The intricacies of our pipeline system demand full participation by stakeholders at every level if we are to speed the safe delivery of cost-effective energy to America.  The technology to achieve this is abundant as is the political sentiment.  All that remains is to bring these parties together to harness our assets in pursuit of a balanced approach to providing energy.

David Farr is Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Emerson Electric, a St. Louis-based global manufacturing and technology company.



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