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Upgrades required for LNG to meet demand
New gas infrastructure will be required from well-head to gas consumer to meet rising worldwide demands for LNG.
As one of the world’s largest natural gas producers, the U.S. is now the leading global exporter of liquefied natural gas (LNG). U.S. export capacity for LNG is approximately 12 billion cubic feet per day, or about 15% of total natural gas production. Other major exporters of LNG include Qatar, Australia, Malaysia, Algeria, Russia, Nigeria, Indonesia, and Trinidad and Tobago.
Due to recent geopolitical turmoil, European demand for LNG has risen dramatically, requiring current suppliers to increase production and open new production facilities. There is significant political pressure and economic opportunity for the U.S. to make up the shortfall of Russian-supplied natural gas with LNG. Given the commitments made to potential European recipients, U.S. LNG production would have to increase by more than 20% (about 3 billion cubic feet per day) over the next 12 months.
Unfortunately, the solution isn’t as simple as turning on a faucet and waiting for more LNG to come out. No gas production, transport, or LNG facilities exist with any meaningful excess capacity. Significant infrastructure investments are required in the very near future to increase LNG production in North America. That includes new plant facilities, as well as expansions and additions to existing facilities across the entire natural gas value stream, from wellhead to production plant. A simple estimate is that every 1,000 horsepower of new compression inside an LNG plant requires about 10,000 horsepower of new compression for upstream and midstream gas production and transport compression.
On the receiving side, LNG terminals with regasification and compression must be constructed and tied into existing pipeline systems. Increased production requires not only additions to LNG production plants, but also increased natural gas production, gathering, treatment, transportation and regasification. Upping the amount of natural gas produced, most likely through fracking and new onshore/offshore drilling, calls for additional pipeline capacity, mostly through the addition of compression and pipe loops on existing lines. New gas liquefaction plants are another obvious need.
Since this column is about turbomachinery, let’s focus on this aspect of the added demand for LNG. From a purely turbomachinery perspective, increasing LNG production requires new or uprated machinery in:
1. Production gathering
2. Gas plant with separation, treatment,
3. Pipeline transport
4. Liquefaction plant, including treatment, separation, and refrigeration
5. LNG export
6. LNG receiving terminal, regasification and boost into pipeline network or power plant
An increase of 20% in U.S.-exported LNG corresponds to an increase of 3% in U.S. natural gas production. That may not sound like much but becomes a staggering figure in the context of existing infrastructure and required new machinery. In the U.S. upstream sector — gas production and gathering — there are approximately 15,000 installed compressors, mostly smaller reciprocating compressors driven by engines or electric motors. In the midstream or gas transport sector, there are about 8,000 installed compressors, made up of a mix of older low-speed integral reciprocating, high-speed separable reciprocating, and gas turbine or electric motor-driven centrifugal compressors.
Ignoring downstream and LNG plants for now, there is an estimated 25 million horsepower in the upstream sector and 40 million horsepower in the midstream. Upping this by 3% requires another 2 million horsepower of new compression in the U.S. alone. Based on current worldwide manufacturing capacities, it would take about 2-3 years to meet this new demand for gas compressors. This doesn’t include lead times for material, transport, installation and commissioning/startup in an already resource-constrained economy. Since current lead times for compressor trains, valves and all major transport and production equipment are around 18-24 months between order and startup, it’s fair to estimate it would take the U.S. at least 3-5 years to ramp up LNG production to meet new European demands.
Regardless of actual lead times and manufacturing details, increasing U.S. LNG export capacity requires more than just production plants. It demands consideration of the entire natural gas supply chain. New gas infrastructure, including significant new compression, will be required from well-head to gas consumer to meet rising worldwide demands for LNG. ■
Klaus Brun is the Director of R&D at Elliott Group. He is also the past Chair of the Board of Directors of the ASME International Gas Turbine Institute and the IGTI Oil & Gas applications committee.
Rainer Kurz is the Manager of Gas Compressor Engineering at Solar Turbines Incorporated in San Diego, CA. He is an ASME Fellow since 2003 and the past chair of the IGTI Oil and Gas Applications Committee.
Any views or opinions presented in this article are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of Solar Turbines Incorporated, Elliott Group, or any of their affiliates.