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Meet a Participant: Annie Sheppard

Undergraduate energy researcher analyzes natural gas infrastructure to reduce methane emissions

Annie Sheppard

Through the Mickey Leland Energy Fellowship Program, Annie Sheppard contributed to the U.S. Department of Energy’s efforts to reduce methane emissions from natural gas networks. The MLEF Program is administered by ORAU through its contract with the DOE to manage the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education. (Photo courtesy of Leticia Rojas, MLEF)

According to the Annual Energy Outlook 2014, a report released by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) every year, natural gas production in the U.S. is expected to increase by 56% between 2012 and 2040.

With the increased focus on domestic production, concerns have arisen over the manner in which natural gas is produced and transported. Some of these concerns are related to adverse environmental effects resulting from potential methane emissions. Annie Sheppard, a participant in the DOE Mickey Leland Energy Fellowship (MLEF) program, conducted research on this exact subject, and on ways to reduce methane emissions from natural gas transportation systems

“Natural gas is the cleanest fossil fuel, but like all energy sources it has its flaws,” Sheppard explained. “Methane is the primary component of natural gas, making natural gas one of the largest potential sources of methane emissions in the U.S. Methane can be emitted from natural gas releases in production, processing, storage, transmission and distribution facilities – basically every step of the natural gas “value chain” - which means we need to figure out how to reduce emissions at every step, if possible.”

Sheppard conducted her research within the Office of Oil and Natural Gas alongside her mentor Rick Elliott, director of the Advanced Supply and Facilities Division. She focused on analyzing the “midstream” natural gas infrastructure, which includes everything in the natural gas value chain that is downstream of production wells but upstream of final end-users of the gas. To facilitate her analysis, she consolidated extensive data on the quantities, ages, condition and types of transmission pipelines, compressor stations, storage facilities and local distribution piping networks. Her overall goal was to identify both major sources of methane emissions and specific methods to reduce them, thus ensuring the responsible development of domestic natural gas.

Sheppard was one of a small number of MLEF fellows stationed at the DOE Headquarters in Washington, D.C. Living in the heart of the nation’s capital allowed her to attend an energy security hearing on Capitol Hill and an energy conference hosted by the Energy Information Administration. As part of the program, Sheppard was also able to attend a roundtable discussion with the U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, Ph.D., and other top executives from major natural gas companies.

After graduating with a degree in science, technology and international affairs from Georgetown University, Sheppard envisions herself becoming a leader in a dynamic, clean technology company or working as an energy consultant. Her ultimate goal is to help improve energy efficiency in the U.S. and in other countries around the world.

“The MLEF Program is a great way to better understand the various facets and responsibilities of the U.S. government,” Sheppard said. “I’m thankful to have had the opportunity to contribute to the DOE’s efforts to reduce methane emissions associated with natural gas transmission and distribution, and improve our nation’s energy security.”

The MLEF Program is administered by ORAU through its contract with the DOE to manage the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education. MLEF provides opportunities for students who are pursuing degrees in STEM majors with an emphasis on recruiting female and minority students. The goal of the program is to engage students in a 10-week summer fellowship, focusing on research projects relevant to the DOE Office of Fossil Energy’s mission.