Leveraging synergies between oil & gas and offshore wind to drive net zero

Image: ABB Energy Industries

ABB Energy IndustriesJohan de Villiers emphasises the critical importance of data in transitioning from a hydrocarbon-heavy to net zero energy system.

As children, many of us had no clue what we wanted to do when we ‘grew up’. Not so Johan de Villiers.

“From my very first memories as a child, I knew I wanted to be an engineer – it’s something that fascinated me.

“I wanted to know how the world works and use technology to fix problems and make the world a better place.”

And de Villiers followed that ambition with a “passion that has just grown stronger through the years”.

“I was happy to join ABB 25 years ago and I’ve had various roles in the company across many of our divisions and business lines and also had the wonderful privilege to move around the world and experience different cultures and different geographies.”

Currently, home for de Villiers is Abu Dhabi, where he leads ABB Energy Industries’ oil, gas and offshore wind business globally.

Offshore wind may not seem an obvious bedfellow of oil and gas, yet de Villiers is keen to point out their synergies.

“In oil and gas we’ve had multiple decades of experience operating complex assets offshore in harsh environments and open oceans.

“These assets incorporate automation systems, electrical, digital and telecommunication systems that allow connectivity and enable these assets to produce energy safely, reliably and efficiently.

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“These are exactly the skills that we are leveraging and deploying to the offshore wind sector, which in many cases require similar skills, experience, and equipment.”

He says tapping into the oil and gas sector skills set “is a real strength and opportunity, because we know that this is an energy transition and for many years, we will need to maintain oil and gas assets”.

“Otherwise the world can’t continue to operate. At the same time, we’ve got to deploy the renewable power and renewable power assets as quickly as possible.”

Scaling up

For ABB Energy Industries, he says, the ability “to have scale across both these segments is really powerful. And if you have to build it up from scratch, it would be more of a challenge. This is actually a fantastic opportunity to accelerate the deployment of renewable and low carbon technology.”

And when we talk of that deployment, de Villiers is keen to highlight a trend that he is seeing in the development of offshore wind.

The first trend is scaling up. “The offshore wind segment has come a really long way since that very first offshore wind project in 1991 at Windeby, about two kilometres off the Danish coast with a capacity of around 5MW.

“This was followed by a decade of pilot projects around the world that ended in the early 2000s. We then saw 20 years of scaling up with dramatic improvements in utilisation factors that drove cost down.”

Massive improvements in the supply chain allowed the scale-up and delivery of larger projects around the world, and during this period de Villiers highlights that “the levelised cost of energy for offshore wind dropped by more than 60% and utilisation factors increased from around 20% to well above 40% currently”.

“Today, the levelised cost of energy from offshore wind in most parts of the world are cheaper than new coal, nuclear or gas fired power energy production.

“We have now reached a phase where there is maturing of the segment, optimisation of technology and increasing delivery capacity.”

“You can imagine the parallels you can draw between monitoring instrumentation and equipment on an oil and gas platform and the substation on an offshore wind farm.”

And this maturing is happening in parallel to the global growth in offshore wind. So what is the impact of this increasing scale? “Turbine sizes are increasing; wind farms are also getting larger; more turbines are used with greater power capacity.

“For example, the 3.6GW Dogger Bank wind farm which will include more than 280 turbines. With that kind of scale, there’s a huge demand for the technology that keeps everything connected, ensuring visibility across these assets. It becomes physically impossible to be present across such a vast array.”

This, says de Villiers, is “one of the most important differences with oil and gas: oil and gas assets are very concentrated and in one location, whereas wind farms are spread across hundreds of square kilometres offshore”.

Optimising through data

Which is where the importance of data comes in.

“We are leveraging the years of experience that we have in offshore oil and gas systems which have been instrumental in enabling safe and efficient operations.

“You can imagine the parallels you can draw between monitoring instrumentation and equipment on an oil and gas platform and the substation on an offshore wind farm. “The function may be different, but you still have monitoring of instrumentation on these assets. You still need to collect the data and transfer that through a reliable telecommunications infrastructure to where you can actually utilise and draw insight from this and process this data.

“And then you need to act on that. It’s at the core of wind farm operation, of generation and transmission of the power.”

“I wanted to know how the world works and use technology to fix problems and make the world a better place.”

Yet de Villiers stresses that “it actually goes beyond that. If you think about it at the feasibility stage, there’s a lot of simulation that has to happen. Data is used to determine if the project is feasible and then how it should be designed.

You need digital tools and all kinds of software models for that. Through operations you need the same. Data is absolutely critical to the operation of wind farms and the deployment of these assets to have reliable instrumentation: automation and electrical systems connected to remote operation centres placing the right data in the right hands so that you can safely and efficiently operate the assets.”

Digitalisation across the board

When asked what kinds of digital platforms are making the biggest impact, he starts with software and digital twins.

“There are several ways in which digital technologies, specifically digital twins, can help, throughout all phases, from design to operations and grid operations.

“As you move through expansions and improvements, you need software models to understand how systems will react and what the best way is to design these things.”

A practical example he cites is the 88MW Hywind Tampen project, a floating offshore wind project in the North Sea that will supply some of the oil and gas platforms operating in the North Sea.

“The idea is that by supplying clean power to these platforms, they can remove some of the gas turbines, thereby reducing emissions from the oil and gas production process.

“In this case, we’ve used our power process simulator, which is a digital twin of the electrical network to enable a whole range of things, including operator training of the electrical control system and testing. It’s basically a replica of the electrical control system to create a realistic real-world environment.

“And this unique solution uses the same human machine interface as the process control system on these platforms. So you get the seamless integration between how you operate the facilities and how the electrical system behaves – it’s a powerful tool for people who design and operate these pilots.”

He says digital twins help make decisions. Another interesting use case he highlights looks at the changes needed on the power grid being supplied. “The simulation enabled the team to understand the effect of wind and the variability in the wind generation that arrives at the platform and the changes they need to make in how they control these gas turbines and the electrical systems on these plants. It could be done seamlessly.

“You can’t run these experiments on the platform – so simulation is powerful.

“It’s important to remember that offshore wind farms are designed to be normally unattended facilities. “We therefore have to deploy sufficiently reliable equipment. If the equipment and the systems that run the wind farm require maintenance, you really defeat the purpose of it.

“The ability to monitor, to access data and to place their data in front of the right people to make the right decisions is critical to operating.”

So would it be fair to say that data is changing the face of maintenance?

“Absolutely. I think there is a broader trend in how we maintain assets in general, whether you talk about mining or pulp and paper, oil and gas production or wind farms. “Industry 4.0 is reducing the cost of sensors, allowing for more reliable communication infrastructure, more powerful processing infrastructure, and developments in cyber security. All of these trends have enabled us to have access to more data.

“Where we see best practice today is where data is used in a collaborative way.”

“When it comes to maintaining assets, data is your friend. The more you know about that asset, the more you can trend the temperatures, the vibrations, all the different attributes that are relevant to that asset.

“It’s about having data, using data, using machine learning to model, simulate and calculate the condition of equipment and then to inform operators what intervention is required at any specific time.”

“Where we see best practice today is where data is used in a collaborative way.

“Cloud infrastructure is certainly enabling a lot and we see more of our customers utilising the cloud to make sure that there’s a data stream from these assets and that these data streams can be accessed by apps and by domain experts as required.”

Changing business models

De Villiers is keen to highlight how business models are also changing to match this digital innovation.

“Coupled with technological innovation, there’s a great opportunity for commercial and business model innovation as well.

“Software as a service and hardware as a service are business models that could be very interesting and that we are exploring with some of our customers.

“I consider the times when you sold a piece of software as a one-off and it didn’t change over the life of the asset or the life of the software. Those days are over: we live in dynamic times and in a dynamic world, and business models need to adjust to that.

And if we remember the young Johan de Villiers who always wanted to be an engineer: what would he say to a child with similar ambitions today?

“This is an incredibly exciting space to be in. From a technology standpoint, there are very cool things that you can work with as we digitalise. I think that’s naturally quite attractive to younger people. There’s the opportunity to make a difference.

We need to power and run the world in a more sustainable way and it’s wonderful to be part of the story and to play a part somehow.”

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