Decidedly low-tech compared to the real-time electric grid system, natural gas nevertheless is due for a smartness upgrade in its usually mechanically based infrastructure. From increased uses as a transportation fuel to higher-tech approaches to exploration and production (E&P) in the oil/gas patch, the latest natural gas technological push has been boosted by the burgeoning shale gas sector.

Manufacturers, such as General Electric (GE), and metering giants, such as Elster American Meter, have outlined technological advances that they say have been spurred along by the abundant new sources of natural gas in North America, led by the shale boom.

“The opportunities that shale provides cannot be overlooked,” said Rick Murphy, a 30-year gas distribution utility veteran now doing work as a consultant for the American Gas Association (AGA). On behalf of AGA, Murphy participated in a National Petroleum Council study of shale and natural gas’s role that was submitted to the U.S. Department of Energy.

At a meeting it convened for engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) companies Wednesday in Florence, Italy, GE presented industrial innovations it is helping develop as part of a “redefinition of how the world generates, moves and consumes energy.” It sees EPCs as a key to making that redefinition a reality.

In September GE unveiled an upgraded natural gas-fired 50 MW generation turbine, FlexAero, that is supposed to provide a faster, more efficient and more flexible source of electricity to businesses and communities, including shale production processes that now rely on diesel-fired onsite power.

With five years of operating history on more than 200 earlier generation units, GE’s FlexAero is specifically designed to “capitalize on the increased availability and favorable pricing of natural gas as a cleaner alternative for power generation,” GE Energy officials told NGI’s Shale Daily. They confirmed that a major potential market for the latest version of these waterless turbines is in the oil/gas production fields.

Compared to baseload 500-1,000 MW combined-cycle gas generation plants, the FlexAero can achieve 54% efficiency in the combined-cycle mode and up to 89% when cogeneration is integrated into the mix. The typical cost of the units is $45-90/MWh. “It leads its class in both efficiency and reliability, and global GE solutions enable it to be deployed anywhere a customer needs it,” the spokesperson said.

While the electric side of the equation still commands the majority of the interest of the GEs of the world in advancing energy technology, gas is gaining more attention as the shale boom pushes its relevance way beyond the “bridge fuel” scenario of a few years ago, Murphy said. It is not just a transition to the renewable energy world, but an integral part of that longer-range future, he said.

“Before [shale] it was easy to say natural gas was a ‘bridge fuel,’ but now it is pretty clear that it has a long-term role with this country,” Murphy said. “Because of that, we have to make sure we utilize this energy source as efficiently as possible for our overall energy mix. Certainly, to me, that is a big game-changer.”

Away from the production basins, technology similarly is being introduced on gas transmission and distribution pipeline networks as a longer-term complement to the ongoing electric smart grid initiatives and to regulatory responses to pipeline ruptures, including the San Bruno blast that killed eight people in Northern California last year.

Advanced metering providers, such as Elster, are beginning to embrace a multi-utility approach that cuts across the gas and power sectors, said Joe Turgeon, director of the company’s “smart gas solutions” products and programs. Elster has a device, EnergyAxis, designed to be a smart meter solution in the electric, gas and water utility space.

“For example, if you are a large electric-gas multi-utility, the customer can install a fixed network electric advanced metering backbone, and have the gas meter talk through the electric meter network,” Turgeon said. For the gas pipeline sector, Elster is working with others in the industry to interface sensing and automation devices [low-pressure distribution network sensors, cathodic protection readings and methane sensing] to “further leverage the communications network investment” [in gas and electric systems],” he said.