As a cleaner and more versatile energy source than traditional fossil fuels, natural gas is primed to become one of the world’s most commonly used resources. But for natural gas to realize its promise, attention must be paid to the aging infrastructure that supports it – the complex maze of millions of miles of pipeline, above and underground.

We can’t simply build new pipelines in one fell swoop. Instead, we need to use advanced inspection technology to assess pipeline integrity and prioritize infrastructure projects, helping to spread out costs. The industry should take advantage of early-warning systems that use sophisticated inspection technologies to detect the formation of minor integrity issues, like corrosion or erosion, before they compromise the system.

Why the need for better inspections? The increased demand for natural gas.

Inspection technologies are critical as demand for natural gas spikes. In the United States and Canada alone, total gas consumption is projected to increase at a rate of 1.6% per year until 2035.

This build in demand has prompted the industry to examine pipeline infrastructure. While demand is expected to steadily increase, the existing oil and gas transmission pipelines must continue to operate, often beyond their original design lives.

The favorable option is to expand and develop a new infrastructure, a monumental and expensive task. The current US natural gas infrastructure is composed of 2.4 million miles of pipelines; 2.1 million miles are distribution lines that bring gas to homes and the remaining 300,000 miles are transportation lines. With the existing pipelines in the US close to reaching their capacity, decisive action is needed to ensure consumer demand is met.

The Cost of Developing New Infrastructure

Developing and expanding the US pipeline system will warrant capital investments totaling almost $205 billion between 2011 and 2035. The Central and Southeastern regions of the US will need the largest investment, totaling nearly $74 billion. Since a complete overhaul is unrealistic, the industry will conduct a phased expansion over the next 24 years. In conjunction with this phased expansion, the industry is taking a critical eye to its inspection processes to ensure they can maximize the longevity of the current infrastructure until it can be replaced. Pipeline data gathered from inspection technologies will provide insight on structural integrity and help prioritize projects ensuring that areas of critical need are addressed first.

Pipeline Healthcare

Older methods of pipeline inspection consist of visual assessments to detect corrosion, dents and weld defects. For increased accuracy, inspectors are now able to harness the power of technologies designed to examine human wellbeing, such as X-rays and ultrasonics, to check the “health” of a pipeline.

These technologies, coupled with remote monitoring systems, allow in-depth inspections to be conducted on a much more frequent basis. Inspectors can embed pipelines above and below the ground level with wireless sensors that continuously provide them with unprecedented access to remote locations and data on the infrastructure’s integrity, in real-time. This same data can be used as part of a predictive maintenance program for provide trending, warning, and alarm information with data on-demand.

The technology exists; it just needs to be implemented in the field. These technologies not only help ensure asset integrity, they keep people safe and increase plant productivity while eliminating the time-consuming task of excavation. In short, these technologies make the job easier, safer, and more productive.

The integrity and reliability of the nation’s pipeline infrastructure is vital to ensuring energy demand continues to be met in a sustainable manner. The most efficient and cost-effective way to meet demand now is to ensure the current infrastructure is as healthy as possible through highly accurate inspections. Healthcare technologies and wireless sensors are readily available solutions that can help inspectors conduct thorough assessment of pipeline to ensure efficiency and safety. They essentially perform “preventative maintenance by ensuring the integrity of pipelines while improving productivity and safety.”

Brian Palmer is president and CEO of GE Measurement & Control Solutions.