ABB Strikes ‘Holy Grail’ Of Subsea Power Systems For Offshore Energy Rigs
Oil and gas majors involved in offshore exploration and production projects often talk of the savings complete subsea factories – capable of powering hydrocarbon production from the seabed – could bring in terms of their capital and operational exposure.
Instead, diesel and natural gas generators are found powering offshore operations in most cases, taking up valuable space on the rig as well as copious amounts of capital. Only other limited commercial power alternative is via subsea cables connecting offshore rigs to onshore power sources, but these too are limited by connectivity and distance.
That’s all about to change if technologists at the global industrial automation and robotics giant ASEA Brown Boveri (ABB), are to be believed, as the Swiss company claims to have found the “holy grail” of offshore subsea power solutions via its joint industry project with Chevron, Equinor and Total.
Its answer is a subsea power distribution and conversion technology system for energy companies who will be able to access a reliable supply of up to 100 megawatts (MW) of power, over distances up to 600 kilometers out at sea and down to 3,000 meters water depth, at pressures that could shatter a brick.
Unveiling the product in Vaasa, Finland on Wednesday (November 20), ABB claimed the system will need “little or no maintenance for up to 30 years following deployment” making oil and gas production feasible in far out and deep ocean environments.
If so, the product appears to be a game changer. Previously, in terms of subsea solutions, only the transmission cable and subsea step-down transformer were proven to operate underwater.
“Today, our complete subsea power distribution and conversion system includes a step-down liquid filled pressure compensated transformer, medium voltage variable speed drives and switchgear, control and low voltage power distribution, and power electronics and control systems,” Kevin Kosisko, Managing Director of Energy Industries at ABB, told Forbes.
The project was first initiated in 2013, and the product prototype was subjected to a 1,000-hour shallow water test in Finland in 2017. This was followed by a subsequent 3,000-hour test that has passed without a glitch. In that time frame, ABB and its partners have spent no less than $100 million towards its research, design and development, with over 200 scientists and engineers involved in the initiative.
“Passing the 3,000-hour test was a significant milestone and has set the stage for commercial deployment as we are confident the system is a viable industry solution,” Kosisko added.
While Chevron, Equinor and Total will have the first movers’ advantage as partners, the ABB executive said wider discussions on marketing and selling the product to several international oil companies (IOCs), including some of the world’s biggest national oil companies (NOCs) were well advanced.
“The pace of discussions with interested partners has picked up over the last six months. These talks will accelerate further following the commercial launch. We are looking at operators from around the world, both for new oil and gas fields as well as existing fields.”
The system on offer is unlikely to be cheap, and ABB won’t put a price tag on it as different deployment avenues would carry different specifications, bespoke solutions and, of course, costs.
However, the company said that based on a specific field development case, the new technology could offer capital expenditure (capex) savings of more than $500 million, if eight consumers, such as pumps or compressors, are linked through a single cable – something the system makes possible – over a distance of 200 km from other infrastructure.
Moreover, by powering pumps and compressors on the seabed, closer to the hydrocarbon reservoir, the technology can significantly lower power consumption.
“There is potential for substantial energy savings with reduced carbon emissions using power from shore. Any way you look at it – our technology is much more cost efficient versus existing traditional solutions. Typically, those who deploy it will see savings of 30-40% versus traditional systems. It’s a significant capex benefit alongside our offer of 30-year product reliability that brings operating expenditure benefits too.
“We can deploy several incarnations of the product. It can be smaller or bigger depending on the offshore customer’s power requirements.”
In a fiercely competitive industry, ABB has claimed first commercial strike in the sphere. That matters as several of its competitors, including Siemens and Schneider Electric, are also working on similar products.
And it would take some satisfaction in another first, given ABB delivered the world’s first commercial subsea transformer in 1998. Nonetheless, accolades aside competition for business is inevitable.
Kosisko said ABB is upping its efforts to market the system for obvious offshore plays in the Gulf Mexico, Brazil and Australia. “We have not developed the solution in an isolated way. It’s built for [and in partnership with] the industry.
“It has a clear business case and in a competitive industry, as a company we are at peace when it comes to getting a return on investment on the $100 million invested in the project, and more.”
That business case extends beyond offshore oil and gas to the renewables sector. For instance, the system can connect to any power source, enabling future integrations with renewable energy, such as wind and hydro power.
“And this is a technology that cuts a pretty broad swath that can be deployed in many areas around the world and in different applications. We can do 200 MW size and are looking to take the preposition over to the renewable companies over the coming weeks and months, once the phase of working out the cost structure has been completed.”