News Article

Applications for Clean Energy Generated by FreeSpin® In-line Turboexpanders Installed in Natural Gas Pipelines

August 10, 2023

With record-setting temperatures placing a strain on our electricity grid and the global scientific community warning of our dire need to reduce reliance on fossil fuels, energy recovery solutions are more critical than ever to accelerate our clean energy transition without compromising grid security and reliability.

One such opportunity for energy recovery lives within our existing natural gas infrastructure – by converting wasted pressure energy into clean electricity through the FreeSpin® In-line Turboexpander system.

Each FreeSpin® system generates up to 2.6 GWh of clean energy each year, enough to light 700 homes in New York City and offset 2,000 tons of CO2e, the equivalent of 4,360 barrels of oil consumed. However, when pipeline owners do not have demand for this power in their operations, the challenge becomes finding alternative applications for the clean electricity generated by FIT systems installed at pressure letdown stations in the natural gas network. The most obvious solution would be to put this electricity into the electricity grid for external consumption. While the FERC’s recently announced rule streamlining the process for new energy projects to connect to the power grid bodes well for technology like the FIT, the fact remains that many pressure letdown stations where the FIT is installed are in remote locations without viable access to the grid. The question then becomes, how can we use clean electricity generated by FIT systems if it is cost prohibitive to connect to the grid and there is no demand for this electricity on the site itself or in its immediate proximity?

In answering this question, the first idea the Sapphire Technologies team thought about was portability. What devices are portable enough to be somewhat location-agnostic? In other words, if we cannot move the electricity produced by the FIT systems elsewhere, what can we move closer to remote pressure letdown stations with minimal transportation costs and maximum reach? The first solution we came up with: datacenters. Datacenters offer a portable, modular load that can be easily transported and installed throughout the pipeline network to consume the power recovered through pressure letdown. You can read more about how we’ve deployed this solution in partnership with Tallgrass Energy and Evolve Energy here.

Another possible application for the clean electricity produced by the FIT in remote locations involves electric vehicle infrastructure not yet in place, but sorely needed in these remote locations to help expedite our transition to electric vehicles and alleviate the burden they will place on an already over-taxed electricity grid.

Figure 1 EV charging stations around Los Angeles, CA. Source:
Figure 2 EV Charging stations around Helena, Montana Source:

Another avenue for exploration involves converting the clean electricity produced by the FIT into forms of energy that can be more readily transported. Today, 95% of hydrogen in the US is produced in large, centralized plants through a process called natural gas reforming. In theory, the electricity produced by the FIT could power this process at decentralized locations, or the electricity produced by the FIT could be used to produce hydrogen through electrolysis. In its gaseous state, hydrogen could then be transported through existing natural gas infrastructure itself or blended with natural gas in pipelines. On a smaller scale, creative solutions like producing Sustainable Aviation Fuel from feedstock are theoretically viable under the right circumstances.

In short, with a little creative thinking, the opportunities to utilize clean electricity produced by FIT systems continue to grow and we look forward to seeing what applications our customers and partners come up with next.