With hundreds of installations and fifteen thousand kilometres of pipelines, Gasunie transports nearly a quarter of all natural gas used in the European Union. The Dutch and German gas grids are among the world’s most modern and most reliable. Gas outages are an extremely rare occurrence. That’s the ‘road network’, but who manages the traffic? We asked Rob van Gorkum, one of our ‘traffic managers’, i.e. gas dispatchers, at the Central Command Post in Groningen.
Rob explains how the natural gas makes its way to consumers, including industry, regional distribution network operators, and consumers outside the Netherlands. “The gas we dispatch comes from the Groningen field, from other Dutch gas fields, and from abroad. Gas from the Groningen field is unique in its composition, and most equipment in the Netherlands was set up with this gas in mind, meaning that it cannot be used for gas from other sources just like that. And so, we first mix part of the foreign gas to get the composition just right. On top of that, there is also the fact that different end users purchase different quality gas. To make sure we can meet all these different requirements, we monitor gas transmission 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.”
We monitor and intervene from the CCP, a large underground space that is often referred to as ‘the bunker’. “We don’t get many visitors here. In fact, the list of employees who have access to the bunker is very short,” says Rob. “In our bunker, we have a unique customised computer system that lets us operate virtually everything remotely. For example, we can start up a compressor station that is 200 kilometres away with just one press of a button if we need to.”
Four different dispatchers
At the CCP, there are four different gas dispatchers working at any one time, each of whom has a specific role. The alarm dispatcher assesses reports coming in on the computer system and called in by workers out in the field. Whenever maintenance is performed that may affect gas transmission, the job dispatcher takes care of monitoring it. The contract dispatcher checks the administrative groundwork ahead of gas transmission. And finally, the transmission dispatcher monitors the actual gas transmission. Needless to say, these four dispatchers work in close collaboration. “This is not something you can do on your own, you must do it together as a team,” explains Rob. “Every working day, a dispatcher fulfils one of these four roles for the entire day. This keeps the work varied, while still allowing you to really focus on one role for a whole day. There is always a senior or first dispatcher on hand, who will take charge as and when necessary.”
Monitoring and manual interventions
What stands out when you do get to take a look behind the scenes at the CPP is the calmness of it all. “Although things can get hectic, we never go into a panic. We approach everything with a calm and considered mindset. Sure, you have to put your foot down sometimes, which is why it is good that one of us is ultimately in charge. How often we have to intervene? That differs greatly. When a lot of work is being performed on the grid, transmission is also affected. That’s often when you have to intervene. During the night shift, interventions are less likely to be needed. As long as everything is balanced, the work mainly involves monitoring the system. But don’t get me wrong, the computer system doesn’t automatically increase the pressure somewhere as and when needed. This is always a human decision and done manually. No day is ever the same. And that in the fascinating environment of an underground bunker.”