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Electric drive LNG can grow with the clean energy transition

As companies across markets set aggressive decarbonization goals and sustainability commitments to align with changing regulations and consumer demands for greener energy and fuel, the liquefied natural gas (LNG) industry is searching for ways to lower emissions.

Electric drive LNG (e-LNG) has emerged as a potential solution to help lower carbon emissions in liquefaction plants and, in some cases, cut costs. Familiar to the market and already commonly used in small- and medium-scale plants, e-LNG uses electric motors to drive refrigerant compression rather than combustion gas turbines. Of the 40 liquefaction plants the author’s company has engineered, 26 are driven by electric motors. As early e-LNG adopters in the smaller scale segments have seen success and longevity, larger plants are beginning to look to electric drives for some or all operations.

E-LNG offers increasingly attractive—and in some areas, crucial—adaptability because its use of electricity allows it to be run by fossil fuels or renewables. This trait has led to its popularity in an oscillating energy market, where the costs and availability of renewable and fossil-based electricity are constantly changing.

However, as LNG asset owners, operators and investors increasingly eye this technology for their plants, they must understand it is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Significant development of clean energy and energy grid infrastructure will be required if e-LNG is to become the new industry standard.

Growing interest in sustainability. While many dynamics are at play in the proliferation of e-LNG, two factors stand out as clear drivers of the upward trend in adoption: decarbonization goals and economic benefits.

On the decarbonization side, the growing low-carbon and carbon-neutral LNG market is causing prices to fetch a premium. Most LNG achieves carbon-neutral status through carbon offsets, not through direct reductions in emissions. Liquefaction of natural gas contributes approximately 8%–10% of the total emissions along the LNG supply chain. As global interest in carbon-neutral LNG grows, and with end users looking to limit their Scope 2 and 3 emissions, the industry is searching for more direct decarbonization solutions as an alternative to relying on carbon offsets.

In late 2021, the International Group of Liquified Natural Gas Importers issued a framework of rules for declaring cargoes as carbon neutral. It outlines a series of steps, including the transparent sharing of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions data and concerted efforts to reduce Scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions in LNG rather than relying on offsets, the primary method for pursuing carbon-neutral LNG production.

The decarbonization driver is strengthened by LNG companies’ sustainability and decarbonization targets. Across industries, carbon footprint considerations are rising to the forefront of long-term planning; for industries already associated with fossil fuels, these commitments are an important aspect of maintaining a social license to operate.

The author’s company published a report1 that surveyed more than 490 leaders across 14 industries, and found that 73% of respondents have set GHG reduction goals, jumping to 89% among companies with more than $1 B in annual revenue.

The economic considerations go both ways. Separate from the emissions-reduction benefits of e-LNG, economic considerations have been integral in adopting the technology. However, these considerations go both ways—they have also been a deciding factor in cases when the technology was passed over in favor of gas turbines.

In some cases, e-LNG can lower liquefaction plant capital and operating costs (CAPEX/OPEX) because the motor is cheaper and requires less maintenance than gas turbines, resulting in more overall onstream time across the asset’s lifecycle. This cost reduction tends to be a driver of electric motor adoption on projects with adequate and competitively priced available power. However, it would be inaccurate to say that e-LNG is cheaper overall.

Since e-LNG pulls significant power from the grid—especially in cases where a large production plant might be utilizing this technology—there are often cases in which the installation of electric motors requires significant upgrades to surrounding transmission infrastructure, the installation of a high-voltage substation, and more to ensure adequate and stable power. This is where the costs can tend to increase exponentially.

In such cases, it is often more cost-effective overall to choose gas turbines to drive LNG compression. As cost tends to be the deciding factor for any major infrastructure project, e-LNG is not a blanket solution. However, when combined with premium pricing for lower carbon LNG supply and lower cost renewable power, the incentive for e-LNG is expected to grow in the coming years to aid in decarbonizing the natural gas supply chain. Even if market conditions do not support e-LNG economics, adopting electric drives—considering future market changes—may be advantageous to position a facility for a smoother transition to low-carbon operation.

The renewable barrier. If e-LNG compression is intended to lower Scope 1 and 2 emissions, the carbon intensity of the energy used to power the LNG compression train is essential. A plant that chooses an electric drive powered by fossil-based energy could say it has no emissions at the plant itself, but its Scope 2 emissions would remain heavy.

For e-LNG to be truly carbon neutral, the motors must be powered by clean energy. In some cases, this becomes a barrier to adoption. Unfortunately, there are not enough renewables on the grid in many areas to power the electric motors at the scale needed for a larger LNG production plant, and the available electricity is too expensive to make the investment worthwhile.

However, other areas have found success, casting a positive example for those plants with adequate energy resources. The west coast of Canada has many proposed projects pairing renewables with electric motors for LNG compression due to the significant availability of hydropower. As of 2019, Canada held more than 81,000 MW of hydroelectric power capacity, which provides a strong baseload of renewable energy to support these plants.

Moving forward. Although the U.S., in many areas, lacks the renewable capacity to power large-scale e-LNG plants, it does have significant plans for the modernization and decarbonization of power. The Biden Administration’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, passed in late 2021, provides billions of dollars for renewable development and upgrades to grid transmission infrastructure, enabling greater availability of low-carbon energy for future LNG plants.

As new LNG plants are established and older ones are expanded and upgraded, many look to electric drive as a sustainable solution. Though not a panacea, e-LNG offers an adaptable compression option that can grow with the clean energy transition, offering asset longevity as decarbonization targets are realized.

LITERATURE CITED

1 Black & Veatch “Corporate sustainability goal setting and measurement report,” 2021.

AUTHOR BIO

Headshot _Ellrich

JUSTIN ELLRICH is a Principal Process Engineer for Black & Veatch's energy resources business and serves as the LNG Systems Leader, lending technical expertise and project guidance across the department and company. He is experienced in designing both grassroots and revamp facilities for cryogenic processing and incorporating project estimates and schedules into detailed economic models.

 


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Gas distribution systems are critical to the effective operation of many industrial facilities around the world. Despite the importance of these systems, however, opportunities to improve their performance and cost-effectiveness are often missed or misunderstood. Increasing changeover pressure may seem like a good way to improve system flow, for example, but it often does so at the expense of bottled gas. Adding regulators may help you control supply pressure, but it also adds cost to your system. So, how do you know what the ideal gas distribution setup is for you?

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