Propane called on to help natural gas

March 11, 2021 By    

Natural gas companies have been doing it for years, but, this year, there was a new twist. When you mix propane and air at the right percentages, it looks like natural gas at the burner tip. It is called synthetic natural gas and is fairly common in the northern region, such as in Minnesota.

Pipelines will inject this propane/air gas in order to peak shave the use of natural gas. This happens when there is a heavy draw on the limited supply of gas. Companies are called on to curtail their use. Supply interruptions and extreme temperatures add to the dilemma. Gas providers located up north give a special lower-cost gas rate to those companies that have their own backup synthetic natural gas system, which gives them the extra flexibility.

As you can expect when temperatures are subzero for extended periods of time, there are a lot of curtailments to preserve the supply. Such was the case mid-February for a large portion of the United States.

A large glass manufacturer in Oklahoma was being told to limit its natural gas use due to extremely low temperatures that reached as far as Mexico. It needed to find a backup quickly to supply the 60 million British thermal units (mmBtu) powering its operations.

“We received the call Monday night, and, by the next day, a crew was headed 800 miles south,” says Boyden Kneen, general manager of Utility Energy Systems (UES) of Elk River, Minnesota. “You do not shut down or start up a glass plant easily. It runs continuously.”

UES, which provides systems that serve 7 mmBtu up to 400 mmBtu, had previously helped the company during a different emergency at its Minnesota plant.

“This isn’t the first time we have responded to emergencies such as this,” Kneen says. “A few years ago, we shipped a vaporizer down to a Tennessee nuclear waste facility over the Christmas weekend.”

Most companies today use a synthetic natural gas backup system to lower their overall gas expense by going to a cheaper-rate tariff schedule. But in the two cases mentioned above, a backup was needed for a different reason. If the supply to the facility is interrupted by a construction accident or by a local gas distributor due to widespread temperature extremes, backups are critical.

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