No Shortage of (Natural) Gas

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I envision that somewhere, in our national array of large facility operators, there must be a seasoned fuel manager, armed with sharp pencils, finely tuned spreadsheets, and two red telephones, each linked to a fuel oil and a natural gas distributor, respectively.  I imagine him or her sitting at a dimly lit desk, deep in a warm mechanical room, alongside a huge array of quietly humming dual-fuel boilers.  A small computer screen on the desk is scrolling the latest fuel commodity prices.

I have a vivid imagination, but, in a routine and functional sense, folks like that are out there.  The idea of course is to utilize the most efficient fuel source based on the envisioned heating requirements, current fuel supplies on hand, current gas vs. oil pricing, and the predicted trends for both.  The goal is to save money, and sometimes lots of it.  I’m sure as a generalization, the bigger the facility, the wider the price swings, and the wiser the fuel planning, the less dollars are literally burned.

That’s my introduction to the general concept of dual-fuel boilers, which is proving to be a potentially timely topic.  In the news throughout the last several months, including very recently, is the story of how the U.S. actually now has a surplus of natural gas, which has been steadily increasing over the last year.  It’s kind of hard to believe, considering the $147 per barrel prices for crude oil experienced in July 2008.  But natural gas is a different fuel entirely, and that’s the whole point.

Fuel companies, including Exxon-Mobil, have ramped up their investment in subsidiaries that extract natural gas from shale formations and the natural seams in coal fields.  They’ve also been buying up acreage where these shale formations and coal deposits are located.  This has contributed to record natural gas surpluses, particularly in the central United States.  Pursuit of these technologies, combined with the world-wide recession, have experts predicting a nominal 10% surplus in global natural gas supplies for the next several years.

This is a good example of how market place trends can drive oil vs. natural gas fuel decisions, and why having dual-fuel boilers is a great option for many facilities managers.  Sometimes the trends in the fuel industry are not nearly as strategic or impactful as this resurgence in natural gas extraction.  In years past, a major snow storm, a broken pipeline, or the daily political dynamics overseas, have all created peaks and valleys in oil vs. natural gas fuel pricing.  The good fuel manager at a large facility is ready to adjust, as needed.

If I can’t find my imaginary fuel guru hiding in the bowels of a Norman Rockwell mechanical room somewhere that’s worthy of a video production, we’ll at least provide more information soon on dual-fuel boilers.  Right now I’m guessing such a fuel guru is burning natural gas in his or her boiler plant!

Andrew Kimos

Andrew Kimos completed the civil engineering programs at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy (B.S. 1987) and the University of Illinois (M.S. 1992) and is a registered Professional Engineer in the state of Wisconsin. He served as a design engineer, construction project manager, facilities engineer, and executive leader in the Coast Guard for over 20 years. He worked as a regional airline pilot in the western U.S. before joining the team as Operations Channel Producer.

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