The first major energy pipeline project in the United States came during WWII due to attacks on U.S. oil tankers enroute between Texas and the northeastern United States by German submarines in 1941-42, notes the American Oil & Gas Historical Society. The naval attacks (named Operation Paukenschlag) sank 73 allied tankers on that route alone (https://bit.ly/3Fy9WKB).
To remedy this, the U.S. government commissioned the Big Inch (1,254 miles or 2,018 kilometers) and Little Big Inch (1,475 miles or 2,374 kilometers) pipelines, with 35 pumping stations along their routes. These pipelines were constructed in just 350 days between 1942 and 1943. They were sold to the Texas East Transmission Corp. in 1947 for a little under $150 million and converted to natural gas.
The 1950s and 1960s saw a leap in available technology and consumer demand for natural gas, more than doubling the demand following World War II. After the war, nearly half of the existing natural gas transmission network and a large portion of the local distribution networks were installed. The distribution network has continued to expand to provide natural gas service to new commercial facilities and housing developments.
The U.S. natural gas pipeline network has about 3 million miles of mainline and other pipelines linking natural gas production areas and storage facilities with consumers, explains the U.S. Energy Information Administration. In 2020, this natural gas transportation network delivered about 27.7 trillion cubic feet of natural gas to about 77.3 million customers (https://bit.ly/3NoOdaP).
Building thermal energy networks
Consider that the United States was able to install 1.5 million miles of natural gas distribution lines in the 1950s and 1960s, a period of just 20 years, adding service to 40 million additional customers. It is an achievable goal for this country to do it again. The U.S. trade unions and utilities will be able to do the same job, if not much more, to provide our nation with renewable energy through thermal energy networks.
The rights-of-way are already in place, and these new networks need no new fuel source to speak of. All the energy is locally sourced from the earth and the diversification of loads within the built infrastructure.
As with anything poised to replace fossil fuels, there is presently and will continue to be concern and statements attempting to illustrate that such a monumental infrastructure project as geothermal energy network pipelines is not possible. However, it’s clear that local pipe networks to carry renewable local energy will be easier than piping oil across a continent.
In the city, the pipe network is similar to the drinking water pipelines we’ve already run through our communities. That said, it’s easy to understand that a local thermal energy network is a simpler task than a natural gas network.
We have a proven history of completing infrastructure projects of epic proportions. The advent of thermal energy networks has precedence in many cities and communities worldwide. Many of these networks include chilled water, hot water and steam.
Water-based fluids are the best way to transport thermal energy. And 40 percent of the energy consumed by buildings is to provide space heating and domestic hot water. Meanwhile, cooling-dominant commercial buildings are exhausting heat through their cooling towers. Once the thermal energy network pipelines are installed in our communities, this heat can be used to provide heating and hot water for other buildings.
We ran a February 2020 article about the failing natural gas infrastructure in Massachusetts (http://bit.ly/GeoMicroDistrict). Natural gas companies are presently seeking funds to upgrade failing pipelines. The story illustrates that Massachusetts saw this and chose to divert billions of dollars from natural gas to thermal energy network projects.
Most of the U.S. natural gas infrastructure is due for replacement. It's time for the 70-year-old pipelines to be upgraded from piping combustible fossil fuels to piping renewable, water-based thermal energy networks. We can follow the same protocols as have been laid out in Massachusetts:
1. Update the public service commission regulations for energy utilities, enabling them to sell thermal energy (most utilities are regulated to sell only electricity or combustible fuels).
2. Cross-train existing plumbers and pipefitters to install thermal energy network pipelines and building services.
3 Cross-train existing heating contractors to install water-source heat pumps (instead of furnaces and boilers).
4. Commission community heat-pump engineering projects in communities.
The U.S. fiberoptic network has expanded over the last few decades at a cost of $3,000 to $8,000 per home (https://bit.ly/3l725dj). Similarly, we are beginning the process for the thermal energy network using much of the same GIS and layout technology.
Thermal energy networks are as critical to our infrastructure now as water, sewer, electric and fiberoptics have proven in recent generations.