Pipeline accidents in Allentown, Pennsylvania in 2011 and Sissonville, West Virginia in 2012 destroyed homes, caused death and injury, and reminded us how critical careful gas transmission and distribution really is. We are accustomed to natural gas reliably powering our homes and businesses, but even those responsible for getting it there can take that system for granted.
Safety and aging infrastructure are top concerns of natural gas executives surveyed by Black & Veatch in 2015, and with good cause. Replace just five percent of a room’s air with natural gas and the atmosphere becomes explosive. According to a U.S. Department of Transportation report, nearly one-third of natural gas distribution pipelines in the U.S. were built before 1970. More than 50,000 miles of these older pipes were welded together with outdated techniques that are prone to failure.
Despite these known conditions and obvious hazards, one-third of respondents to the Black & Veatch survey did not have a resilience plan in place for their natural gas operations four years after the Pennsylvania and West Virginia accidents. Fifty-four percent of respondents agreed with the statement that “a formal risk-based planning approach has not yet been undertaken to my knowledge.”
Why should so many utilities executives be without a risk-based plan, when the consequences of risk are so high?
Much of our natural gas infrastructure is hidden underground, which means it is often out of sight and thus out of mind, contributing to our becoming inured to problems. Gas utilities have developed clever methods such as pigging, hydro testing, and cathodic inspection for measuring and maintaining the health of pipes. Those clever methods generate multiple, disparate sources of data related about assets. Today, many utilities are flooded with data but no closer to fresh and useful insights based on that data.
Situational intelligence offers a powerful approach to analyzing those data sources and quantifying the risk present in natural gas assets. By correlating, analyzing and visualizing data related to an asset’s age, condition, location, network relationships, and operating history, situational intelligence provides a method for making decisions based on the likelihood of asset failure and the consequences should failure occur.
With this specific understanding of risk, natural gas managers and executives can prioritize maintenance, repair, refurbishment and replacement work to focus first on the most critical assets. This approach drives down risk faster than following a time-based or even condition-based approach to asset planning and operations.
We can’t fully eliminate risk, but we now have the analytics approaches to understand, quantify and lower risk to help prevent future pipeline accidents.
(Image: smereka / 123RF Stock Photo)