*This article originally appeared on the LinkedIn of Bill Davis.

Change waits for no one. That’s especially true when it comes to energy.

Let’s look at Asia, a rapidly growing region. A hundred years ago, Asia was home to some 2 billion people. Now there are twice that many. Emerging economies are gaining momentum, and the way Asians are living—and want to live—is changing for the better.

What’s powering this transformation? Growing access to energy. And what the world needs now is more flexible, cleaner energy that can adapt to the changing needs of society. Because people need more energy, without the wait.

Lower-emission, flexible energy: creating better choices, with a wider reach

Today, Asia is highly reliant on coal, especially for power generation. Additionally, widespread use of conventional fuels in industries and transportation carries environmental costs. But that is changing.

There is growing commitment to switch to lower-emission energy sources that can give end users—whether families or factories—the reliable energy they need, now. All this translates into bigger roles for renewables and natural gas-based energy: sources that are cleaner and more flexible compared to traditional coal or liquid fuels. And new approaches are helping overcome some of the traditional burdens of these legacy fuels, such as large up-front infrastructure investments like pipelines or transmission grids.

Sometimes just getting energy to where it’s needed can be the biggest challenge. You can put the infrastructure in place—massive physical pipelines or power lines criss-crossing the country—and still not reach everyone.

Remote locations, challenging terrain, weather and basic economics all impact who gets energy… and when. In countries like India that have shifting populations, with people migrating across the country for work, there’s a continuous challenge in making smart energy investments not just where the demand is, but where the demand will be.

A ‘virtual’ infrastructure solution … with real benefits

So we at ExxonMobil have been asking ourselves: Why should people or industries have to wait until all that infrastructure is built to get access to more flexible energy? Or, can we innovate?

We see ‘virtual gas pipelines’ (VGPs) as one of the solutions. The time seems right for India—and that’s why ExxonMobil is working with IndianOil and Chart Industries Inc. to kickstart a new industry.

So what are virtual pipelines? They work by transporting liquefied natural gas (LNG) in truck-sized, specially designed cryogenic containers. VGPs can bring lower-carbon, gas-based energy to people or industrial hubs when and where needed.

What’s neat is that they are multimodal: we can move LNG tanks on existing roads or rails, float them on ships, or a combination of those conveyances. For example, you move LNG tanks by ship up the coast, put them on a railroad to move it farther into the country, and then have trucks carry it the last miles.

What that means is that if you need gas, you don’t have to wait for physical pipelines to be completed. Gas can now be dropped off at your doorstep.

Another key benefit is that virtual pipelines are future-flexible. They can connect users to natural gas now, but adapt to future conditions. If a physical pipeline is eventually built to serve an area jumpstarted by virtual pipelines, the virtual pipeline equipment can be redeployed to the next area needing gas. That flexibility allows your energy network to develop and optimize over time, while retaining the value of your mobile gas delivery equipment.

Technology at work for India

What’s clear is that the VGP approach leverages new technologies and systems. That’s good for India, as the country can help perfect the elements of the supply chain and take a global lead in manufacturing for this new sector.

But as is often the case with emerging technologies, we have also seen some unexpected applications emerge during the pandemic. During the second COVID-19 wave in India, newly manufactured LNG tanks for our VGP pilot were repurposed to carry much-needed oxygen to hospitals. This was a great chance to serve India’s most pressing needs, while also investing in the energy future.

Time to get started

Taking virtual gas pipelines from a good idea to something we can see all across India will require real effort. Fortunately, we are working with equally determined collaborators to get the show rolling. And with the enabling support of the Indian government, we could score a win for all Indians, accelerating access to lower-emission energy.

At ExxonMobil, we can hardly wait.


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