By Sandeep Mukund
The outlook for the North-American energy sector has changed with the change of the guard after the presidential elections in November 2020. The question for energy companies is: are you ‘environmentally conscious’ enough to ride the changing tide?
The North America’s midstream oil and gas sector has been the only energy industry witnessing significant growth since the global oil price crash in 2014. In an earlier stage, the planned and the proposed greenfield and brownfield oil and gas pipelines leading to the export terminals had been the most promising opportunity for new investments and sales for stakeholders in the pipeline business.
However, on the eve of Joe Biden’s presidential inauguration day, one of the first executive orders was to cancel the Keystone XL pipeline’s permits. The fate of the controversial pipeline has been hanging in the air since 2010, along with its stakeholders, with every forth-coming U.S. president undoing each others’ decisions.
The key apprehension amongst the progres-sives behind sanctioning the pipeline is that a catastrophic failure in case of a malfunction might lead to oil spillages and an adverse impact on the surrounding ecosystem.
Strengthening environmental protection regulations
Furthermore, the new U.S. government will also be re-entering the international Paris Agree-ment, empowering EPA and enforcing Obama-era environmental regulations such as the Clean Air Act.
The future of several of the earlier proposed oil and gas projects now seems bleak, with the an-ticipated change in energy policies leading to ei-ther further delays or cancellations. In response, the larger established energy companies would launch new green initiatives such as ‘clean coal’ and ‘carbon capture and storage’ projects to lower the company’s carbon footprint.
The biggest challenge in successfully execut-ing these large-scale initiatives is the required large capital, effort and time while remaining competitive against other global players. The current volatility in global oil prices due to overproduction, COVID-19 restrictions, and declining consumer demand has led to declin-ing profit margins, making it even harder for users to allocate surplus funds towards these green initiatives.
Energy companies must act quickly as a response to changing regulatory and market conditions. They have to implement more feasible process changes (digitalisation, ed.) to adhere to the strengthening regulation and boost consumer confidence. Today’s millennial and next-gen consumers are also very selective about the products and companies they choose to purchase and support. Taking steps to lower your company’s fugitive emissions and invest in enhanced safety to avoid potential catastro-phes is a sign that a O&G-company is environ-mentally conscious.
Digital transformation holds the key
Digital transformation in process indus-tries unlocks new opportunities for owners/operators to lower fugitive emissions and optimize production operation. Midstream oil and gas pipeline operators can leverage the latest range of intelligent valve actuators and other smart field devices, paired with digital tools for asset monitoring, performance management and proactive maintenance, to gain a competitive edge over compa-nies that rely on conventional products with periodic/preventive techniques. This would also simultaneously enhance operational safety and productivity of the process plant.
Valve actuator upgrades are critical for pipeline operators striving to minimize fugitive emissions from conventional gas-powered valve actuators, which have been the ‘go-to’ technology for natural gas pipelines.
One of the fundamental issues with traditional gas-powered valve actuators is the higher levels of fugitive emissions as-sociated with their design, which exhaust natural gas (CO2 and methane) into the atmosphere with each valve stroke. This leads to unnecessary costs related to product loss and potential fines for non-compliance with environmental regula-tions. To avoid this, end users are either completely replacing their gas-powered actuators with newer electronic actuators or retrofitting their existing units with an advanced valve operating systems designed to re-inject the extracted natural gas back into the main pipeline.
Electronic heavy-duty actuators
Many other pipeline owners/operators are shifting away from conventional mechani-cal and electro-mechanical actuators in favour of more sophisticated electronic actuators to be future-ready for heavy-duty isolation applications.
These smart electronic actuators are equipped with solid-state motor drives with a non-intrusive design and enhanced functionalities such as wireless control (Bluetooth), remote monitoring, data logging and transfer capability for further analysis.
These actuators can also operate on a standalone basis, independent of a central control system, and can also be autonomously powered by a solar-pow-ered unit. The connected online, non-intrusive monitoring technologies, such as acoustic emission and ultrasonic sensors, are gain-ing more acceptance amongst pipeline operators for corrosion monitoring and leak detection over conventional intrusive and periodic monitoring technologies. Implementing digitally monitored non-in-trusive real-time corrosion monitoring and leak detection systems would reduce the frequency of inspection procedures and eliminate the need for hydrostatic testing in many applications. This would poten-tially reduce the periodic maintenance cost to half or one-third of the original cost incurred during the conventional inspection process.
Healthy mix of future energy sources
With an increasing emphasis on carbon emissions across several large economies and geographies, these strategies remain valid for end-users across the globe, pursuing process optimization, enhanced safety and lower carbon footprint. Unlike the large-scale green initiatives – most notably CCS – , end-users can choose to implement these more immediate process improvements in small segments and substantially scale it plantwide, based on desired operational goals. The companies would require considerably lower capital or can leverage leasing models for the necessary hardware and a pay as you go/performance-based contracts for proactive maintenance.
The scalability of renewable energy for large-scale applications is still plagued by challenges such as initial hardware cost (without federal subsidies), consis-tent production, storage, and distribution for completely replacing fossil fuels as a major energy source.
The present commercialy viable technol-ogy enabling renewable energy generation is limited for residential and commercial usage. The technology and infrastructure for the conceptual hydrogen-based energy economy is at least a few decades away from commercialization.
In the transition period, the most viable source of energy is a healthy mix of renewable power generation and clean-burning fossil fuels. In the meantime, strongly promoting one’s energy company as being ‘environmentally conscious’ also helps attract customers looking to support environmentally conscious businesses while strengthening the relationship with its existing customer base.
About the author
Sandeep Mukund is a senior analyst working for ARC Advisory group, North America. Sandeep has been track-ing the global and regional industrial process control equipment and field instrumentation market for over eight years. ARC Advisory group houses
a spectrum of syndicated research reports with a holistic market outlook on industrial software, automation, equipment and instrumentation technologies.
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