Automated line for the production of glass containers. The hot bottles are put on a moving conveyor
Adobe Stock/Aikon

The ferocious winter storm that left Texas and many other parts of the country reeling in February has brought acute attention to the resilience of our energy infrastructure.

That’s especially true for large industrial facilities, where shutdowns can lead to multi-million-dollar losses and damages. With natural gas supplies threatened by shutdowns or curtailment, many of these facilities were able to turn to synthetic natural gas (SNG) supplies created from on-site propane to rescue their business—even on extremely short notice.

A glass bottle plant in Henryetta, Okla., for instance, saw its theoretically firm natural gas supply curtailed by a force majeure clause when the pipeline couldn’t provide the needed supply. The factory saw its supply of roughly 250 dekatherms of natural gas per hour cut to about 50, with the possibility of being turned off completely. Facing the threat of severe financial losses, the manufacturer called Elk River, Minn.–based Utility Energy Systems (UES) to see whether it could have a backup system ready in less than 48 hours.

“If they don’t have any thermal input into their refractory brick oven, the bricks will start contracting and pulling apart,” says Boyd Kneen, general manager of UES, which builds propane-based SNG systems and provides propane vaporizers through “If you let it cool down, it collapses on itself and you need to rebrick it.” The repair costs can amount to about $3 million, but the losses from glass production can be even more costly.

Backup for curtailed natural gas

By Tuesday morning, UES had a crew headed 800 miles south with an 18,000-gallon portable propane tank, two combination vaporizer-blender units, and other equipment needed to produce SNG. By Wednesday, the system was operational, supplementing the factory’s curtailed natural gas supply.

This backup synthetic natural gas plant was set up in less than 48 hours for a glass bottle manufacturer in Henryetta, Okla.
This backup synthetic natural gas plant was set up in less than 48 hours for a glass bottle manufacturer in Henryetta, Okla.

SNG systems are also known as propane-air systems because they use blenders to mix propane and air in precise percentages to replicate the performance of natural gas. The resulting blend can supplement an existing natural gas supply or replace it completely, making it an important component of the backup energy supply strategy for many facilities.

Emergency shutdowns are only one of the reasons these facilities may need backup systems in place. The systems have become fairly common in northern regions where natural gas suppliers offer lower curtailment rates for facilities that implement backup SNG systems. The facilities receive lower natural gas rates year-round in exchange for agreeing to periodic disruptions of their supply during periods of peak demand, such as a harsh winter storm.

But while the Oklahoma glass factory serves as a heartening success story, it crystallizes the need for architects, engineers, and energy managers to be proactive about securing their backup energy supplies. In fact, UES received an influx of requests for similar systems, not all of which can be accommodated in 48 hours. Learn more about applications for SNG in commercial and industrial buildings at