Paul Johnson, operations director, Oxford Flow Distributed energy, Energy networks, Energy retail, Gas retail, Gas transmission/distribution, Opinion, Paul Johnson

Updates to a decades-old valve technology can have an impact as significant as that of sensors and smart networks.

Sensors, smart networks and demand response are popular topics in utility blogs and magazines. However, it’s easy to overlook the steady, diligent innovation of the gas distribution networks (GDNs).

GDNs have quietly set about implementing programmes to cut carbon emissions and protect prices. Although sensors and data will play a role, fundamentally it boils down to good old-fashioned engineering excellence – such as the gas pressure regulating valve.

Core component

Pressure regulating stations (PRSs) are a core component of any gas distribution network. Current gas regulator designs have remained essentially unchanged for over a century. They incorporate a rubber diaphragm that is corroded by the gas over time, so regular replacement of the diaphragm is key.

This can make operational expenditure (OPEX) on PRSs relatively high. Therefore, if a modern gas regulator design could meet equally stringent safety and performance requirements while reducing maintenance costs, improving reliability and with similar or reduced initial capital outlay, it could be a game changer for GDNs.

The IM series gas regulator valve has a single moving part and no rubber diaphragm to replace. It cuts OPEX, and CAPEX and performance are comparable.

It also responds faster than traditional gas regulators, making it easier to install and set up, and less likely to cause network pressure spikes when doing so.

Decarbonising heat

Policymakers are considering options for the decarbonisation of heat, and a leading idea is to gradually switch the natural gas network to carbon-free hydrogen.

However, frequent replacement of rubber diaphragms in gas regulators may still be necessary. Hydrogen, with smaller molecules, may erode the rubber much more quickly than natural gas. Research remains to be done into how much hydrogen will accelerate this process, but it is likely that a modern design without a rubber diaphragm will be an important component in a future hydrogen network.

Innovation comes into play at many levels, from wholesale overhaul of the country’s approach to heat, to incremental improvements in daily asset operation that add up to major cost savings. It seems clear that an update to the centuries-old gas regulator has a significant enabling role to play on both fronts. The time is right for a quiet gas regulator revolution.

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