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Pipes&Tanks.gifAmid
the clamor of national debate over how best to reduce reliance on oil,
the call to replace petroleum with ethanol made enough noise to attract
government and industry attention. A federal mandate, passed in
December 2007, requires that the United States produce 15 billion
gallons of corn-based ethanol by 2015. In response, a major U.S.
pipeline company, Colonial, began its study of the feasibility of
introducing alternative fuels such as ethanol to pipeline shipments.

Pipes&Tanks.gifAmid the clamor of national debate over how best to reduce reliance
on oil, the call to replace petroleum with ethanol made enough noise to
attract government and industry attention. A federal mandate, passed in
December 2007, requires that the United States produce 15 billion
gallons of corn-based ethanol by 2015. In response, a major U.S.
pipeline company, Colonial, began its study of the feasibility of
introducing alternative fuels such as ethanol to pipeline shipments.

 

“Ethanol is now transported on railways and roads, but there is
growing interest in the use of pipelines,” said Chad Zamarin who spent
eight years in the natural gas industry working on new pipeline
construction, failure investigation, and pipeline integrity management
before joining Georgia-based Colonial Pipeline Company in 2004. “We
want to be able to safely ship any and all types of fuel.”

Colonial has been in the pipeline business for 45 years and
delivers a daily average of 100 million gallons of different fuels to
markets across the southern and eastern United States. The company’s
5,500-mile network of underground pipelines extends from Houston to the
New York harbor and carries gasoline, home heating oil, aviation fuel,
and other refined petroleum products.

Even for a company with as much experience and infrastructure as
Colonial, the task of shipping ethanol brings new concerns that must be
addressed, such as protection of the steel pipe and integrity of the
fuel being shipped. Despite obstacles, Colonial is pushing ahead with
system integrity and business case studies for carrying alternative
fuels, including bio-fuels.

 DugPipeline.gif
 The efficiency of pipeline distribution makes new cross-country lines a viable investment.

“We are moving in the direction of alternative fuels because we
want to be ready to not only ship the fuels of today but also the
emerging and still unknown fuels of tomorrow,” Zamarin said. “Pipelines
are by far the safest, most reliable and most efficient mode of
transportation. We are trying to figure out how to use our
infrastructure and technology to address the nation’s energy needs.”


The Challenge of Moving Ethanol

“The first step in addressing the ethanol issue was to perform an
analysis of our existing pipeline system to see if we are capable of
shipping ethanol,” Zamarin said.

Colonial and other pipeline industry experts have learned that
ethanol is not directly compatible with existing systems. Ethanol is
water soluble and prone to absorbing moisture that may accumulate in a
pipeline. The addition of water to ethanol can render the ethanol
unusable as fuel. Additionally, ethanol differs from petroleum based
fuels in that in the presence of certain impurities it can potentially
cause cracking of steel pipelines. Ethanol can also have a damaging
effect on a steel pipeline’s equipment and seals.

 ArcMap_PipelineRoute.gif
 This ArcMap screen shot shows the current pipeline routes with topology

A second consideration to the idea of shipping ethanol through
existing pipelines is location. Ethanol production centers are mostly
in the Midwest—far from consumers and not in direct reach of many
existing pipelines. Ethanol would still have to be shipped to a
pipeline injection facility by train, barge, or truck.

To manage the large and growing number of contingencies and
considerations, Colonial uses geographic information systems (GIS)
technology. GIS software by ESRI provides a framework for understanding
every element of a particular situation based on geographic location
and relationships. In the pipeline industry, GIS is used to find the
best opportunities for tying producers to pipelines to terminals and,
eventually, to retail gas stations.

“In today’s complex regulatory and operational environment, it is
impossible to effectively manage a pipeline system without the use of
GIS,” said Rob Brook, ESRI’s pipeline industry manager. “With GIS you
can reference and integrate limitless amounts of information and arrive
at the type of informed decisions necessary to ensure public safety.”

Using GIS, pipeline companies layer infrastructure data with
natural resources and population information. For Colonial, GIS
provides an integrated account of the company’s  assets and
infrastructure.  The system tracks the location of pipelines, tanks,
equipment, and other components. With the modern geospatial tools found
in ESRI’s ArcGIS software, Colonial can analyze its infrastructure to
quickly identify locations that may not be compatible with ethanol. By
building a computer model of proposed plans, Colonial is able to
identify risks and analyze the use or modification of its pipeline
system for potential ethanol service.

Working with GIS technology, Colonial has been able to build
business models for shipping ethanol via pipelines. Within the business
model, Colonial can weigh the costs associated with various railroads,
the production capacity for each ethanol plant, and the various transit
times from producer to pipeline. Colonial engineers map and model
possible scenarios of transporting ethanol from producer to train,
barge, or truck to pipeline to terminals and back to trucks. 
Concurrently, the company can analyze population data within the GIS to
determine where the greatest demand for ethanol exists.

As opportunities are emerging, pipeline companies such as Colonial
have begun route selection and planning for new pipelines. Routing of
new pipelines requires consideration for property owners, water bodies,
environmental issues, impact to other utilities, types of vegetation,
fault lines, and topography. All  this information can be represented
as layers in a GIS.

“If I want to know what ethanol producers are closest to Colonial
pipelines or what railway systems connect us, I’d have to use a lot of
maps and I still might not figure out which combination of producer and
railroad is best,” Zamarin said. “The tedious process of shuffling
through paper maps and relying on manual interpretation has become an
efficient process of spatial analysis when we put all the information
into the GIS. We run spatial queries to identify which ethanol
producers connect to railroads and then in turn connect to our pipeline
and integrate that analysis into our business models to identify the
best opportunity.”

 RefineryMap.gif
 This image of a refinery incorporates spatial analysis for detailed planning purposes



The Debate over Ethanol

While Colonial prepares to respond to the demand for
biofuels—ethanol or otherwise—the discussion of U.S. ethanol policy has
intensified. For decades, the U.S. oil and natural gas industry has
blended ethanol with petroleum to add octane and oxygen, which reduces
certain kinds of fuel emissions.

“Without ethanol blended into gasoline, gas today would cost 50 to
60 cents more per gallon, which in turn would raise fuel costs
incorporated into the price of food,” Renewable Fuels Association
spokesperson Matt Hartwig told U.S. News & World Report. 

In 2007, U.S. farmers harvested a little more than 13 billion
bushels of corn, according to reports by the United States Department
of Agriculture (USDA). Before floods overran much of the Corn Belt,
this year’s projected yield was a record 14.6 billion bushels with 3.2
billion bushels designated for ethanol and 2.35 billion bushels for
export. More recent estimates lower total projected yield to 11 billion
while corn used for ethanol is expected to jump 30 percent.

New questions abound regarding the use of corn crops. Should corn
be consumed, converted into fuel, fed to animals, or exported? How much
of the corn now being used for ethanol is affecting food prices?

The biofuels industry faces many complex issues, but most revolve
around geospatial questions, according to ESRI’s Brook who sees GIS
technology as a means to solving the nation’s energy problems.

“Whether you are analyzing regional or national supply and demand,
the impact of natural disasters or transportation issues, a geographic
approach to problem solving can provide many advantages” he said.
“Since most of the industry’s problems are geographic in nature it
seems that biofuels and GIS are beginning what should be a long and
intimate relationship.”

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