Natural Gas: Bridging the Gap between Fossil Fuels and Renewable Energy

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Cheryl Campbell

Bachelor of Science
Chemical Engineering

Natural gas, a close relative to crude oil, rarely attracts as much interest or headlines as petroleum. Since natural gas burns cleaner than oil or coal, produces less greenhouse gases, and is found in abundance in this country, environmentalists and energy analysts have begun touting natural gas as a bridge fuel from petroleum to renewable, low-carbon energy sources.

For 26 years, Cheryl Campbell (ChemEngr/Bus ‘83, MS Bus ‘90), has witnessed the ups and downs of the natural gas industry, which is enjoying widespread support for its potential to displace a portion of America’s dependence on fossil fuels. As vice president of gas system design, operations, and maintenance at the Public Service Company of Colorado, an Xcel Energy subsidiary based in Denver, Campbell is the senior jurisdictional leader for the gas utility that serves 1.3 million customers.

“These are exciting times for the natural-gas industry, which has been in a state of flux compared to when I first got into it,” says Campbell. “Newly discovered gas shales (where natural gas is found) are totally changing the market. There’s a lot of talk about using gas as a bridge fuel to cleaner technologies or making it an integral part of energy generation in this country.”

Potentially vast amounts of natural gas can be tapped from underground shale fields in at least 23 states. The Piceance Shale Basin in western Colorado contains five of the top 50 gas fields of proven gas reserves in the United States. With improved techniques and technology to recover gas from shale deposits, studies indicate that the United States may have enough natural gas deposits to last for more than a century. Natural gas delivers 90 percent of its total energy to customers. Carbon emissions from natural gas are 45 percent lower than coal and 30 percent lower than oil.

“There also is a push for a natural-gas vehicle as a clean alternative to other fossil fuels,” she says. “We went down that path some years ago and it didn’t work out for a variety of reasons. If we want natural-gas vehicles to replace gasoline or diesel- powered vehicles on a large scale, there are a zillion challenges to consider first, because this country doesn’t have the infrastructure in place for distribution, delivery, and storage on a large scale—but it is promising.”

Being at the epicenter of an industry in flux in which promising gas shale deposits are causing market boundaries to be redefined is heady stuff, but Campbell provides strategic and operational leadership with a confidence honed from thoroughly learning the business she has been a part of for more than two decades.

While natural gas is being presented as a compelling continuum toward sustainable-energy systems in the United States, Campbell faces challenges closer to home. Her division is diligently working to identify and replace aging underground gas pipes—some are decades old. The enormity of this long-term project was emphasized recently when a piece of pipe was uncovered with the year 1890 stamped on it.

Another challenge Campbell is facing is a changing workforce with the possibility of tight labor markets due to older workers retiring and the shifting career expectations of younger workers.

“A lot of knowledge and experience is going to walk out the door when the baby boom generation retires,” says Campbell. “How do we keep that knowledge and transfer it to the next group of workers? Our craft positions—the people in the field—are a whole other issue. We need enough skilled people to repair equipment and respond when a gas line breaks. These are great jobs, but young people don’t think about this kind of job, so we’re trying to do better at recruiting.”

An active leader in the engineering community, Campbell serves on the advisory board of the engineering school’s BOLD Center (Broadening Opportunity through Leadership and Diversity), an academic community that supports CU engineering students in achieving their educational and career goals. She also is collaborating with Professor David Clough, one of her former chemical engineering professors, to develop a project at Xcel Energy for students in his senior engineering design class.

“It’s been great working with Dave on this project that will help train the next generation of engineers,” says Campbell. “It was a little weird at first, though, calling him by his first name, because he was always Professor Clough when I was in school.”

Campbell’s career began in 1984 at Colorado Interstate Gas (CIG), first as an associate engineer and later as manager of the design and evaluation department. She subsequently transferred to CIG’s supply management department in 1990 and then to the company’s merchant division in 1993.

She left CIG in 1996 to be director of volume management at Coastal Field Services. With the merger of Coastal and El Paso Western Pipeline Group in 2000, Campbell joined the rates department as manager of rate design for the El Paso group where she prepared cost-allocation and rate-design studies for general-rate filings and certificate applications with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

In 2003, she left the natural-gas industry for a short-lived venture into the computer field as vice president of marketing for a small computer firm based in Dallas, Texas. The excitement of the natural-gas industry lured her back and in 2004 she accepted her present position at Xcel Energy.

“While I haven’t practiced engineering for 20 years, my engineering degree taught me how to think logically and how to solve problems,” she says. “That skill has been applicable to so many areas of my career, not just laying a pipeline. The world needs more engineers and I strongly feel that we need the perspectives of both men and women in engineering.” 

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