Rapid changes in natural gas availability have resulted in significant shifts across the energy system and related sectors. At the same time, long-lived physical infrastructures such as natural gas pipelines are strongly influenced by time-evolving socioeconomic factors such as population changes, technological advances, and shifts in trade patterns. To examine these complex interactions and their implications for natural gas infrastructure development, a team of researchers from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and Johns Hopkins University coupled a domestic natural gas infrastructure investment model to a global human-Earth system model that simulates a wide range of other sectors. They found that the existing U.S. pipeline capacity is generally insufficient to satisfy increasing demands for natural gas, but that infrastructure investment needs vary substantially by region across different socioeconomic scenarios.
Previous studies of natural gas infrastructure development have often failed to account for interactions with other sectors, which can span a wide range of spatial and temporal scales. This study highlights the need to account for these complex multi-sector, multi-scale processes when evaluating how infrastructure needs may evolve under multiple alternative scenarios. It also highlights some of the key interactions and factors that decision-makers in the energy sector need to account for when making future infrastructure planning decisions.
Assessing future infrastructure development needs often requires a multi-sector perspective. For example, rapid population growth or an increase in liquified natural gas (LNG) exports could lead to increasing natural gas demands, while rapid shifts to renewable energy generation could suppress demand, and these effects would vary by region. In this study, researchers evaluated U.S. natural gas infrastructure investment needs across a range of future scenarios by coupling a global human-Earth system model with state-level detail in the United States (GCAM-USA) to a natural gas sector infrastructure investment model with updated data on the newest pipelines in North America (NANGAM). The team explored five future socioeconomic scenarios that resulted in a range of different domestic and international natural gas demand patterns. They found that existing domestic pipeline infrastructure is insufficient to satisfy increasing demand for natural gas in all five scenarios, implying that investments in additional pipeline capacity will be required. However, this result varied by region and by scenario. For example, the existing pipeline infrastructure in the Pacific region was sufficient to meet demand in a scenario with lower natural gas demands, but not in higher demand scenarios, while the mid-Atlantic region generally emerged as a new natural gas supply hub across all five scenarios. These results demonstrate the value of coupling multi-sector human-Earth system models with detailed sectoral models to illuminate complex system dynamics that can be used to inform decision making.