Natural gas is highly pressurized as it travels through an interstate pipeline. To ensure that the natural gas flowing through any one pipeline remains pressurized, compression of this natural gas is required periodically along the pipe. This is accomplished by compressor stations, usually placed at 40 to 100 mile intervals along the pipeline. The natural gas enters the compressor station, where it is compressed by either a turbine, motor, or engine. Turbine compressors gain their energy by using up a small proportion of the natural gas that they compress. The turbine itself serves to operate a centrifugal compressor, which contains a type of fan that compresses and pumps the natural gas through the pipeline. Some compressor stations are operated by using an electric motor to turn the same type of centrifugal compressor. This type of compression does not require the use of any of the natural gas from the pipe, however it does require a reliable source of electricity nearby. Reciprocating natural gas engines are also used to power some compressor stations. These engines resemble a very large automobile engine, and are powered by natural gas from the pipeline. The combustion of the natural gas powers pistons on the outside of the engine, which serves to compress the natural gas.
In addition to compressing natural gas, compressor stations also usually contain some type of liquid separator, much like the ones used to dehydrate natural gas during its processing. Usually, these separators consist of scrubbers and filters that capture any liquids or other unwanted particles from the natural gas in the pipeline. Although natural gas in pipelines is considered ‘dry’ gas, it is not uncommon for a certain amount of water and hydrocarbons to condense out of the gas stream while in transit. The liquid separators at compressor stations ensure that the natural gas in the pipeline is as pure as possible, and usually filter the gas prior to compression.
Natural gas, like most other commodities, can be stored for an indefinite period of time. The exploration, production, and transportation of natural gas takes time, and the natural gas that reaches its destination is not always needed right away, so it is injected into underground storage facilities. These storage facilities can be located near market centers that do not have a ready supply of locally produced natural gas.
Traditionally, natural gas has been a seasonal fuel. That is, demand for natural gas is usually higher during the winter, partly because it is used for heat in residential and commercial settings. Stored natural gas plays a vital role in ensuring that any excess supply delivered during the summer months is available to meet the increased demand of the winter months. However, with the recent trend towards natural gas fired electric generation, demand for natural gas during the summer months is now increasing (due to the demand for electricity to power air conditioners and the like). Natural gas in storage also serves as insurance against any unforeseen accidents, natural disasters, or other occurrences that may affect the production or delivery of natural gas.
Natural gas storage plays a vital role in maintaining the reliability of supply needed to meet the demands of consumers.