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Optimising natural gas value

Financial and operating performance in gas processing depends on full integration of automation and process technologies.

RANDY MILLER, Honeywell Process Solutions
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Article Summary
In the world’s natural gas industry, the need for more efficient gas treatment and natural gas liquids recovery, driven by innovative analytics and advanced process automation, has never been greater. Gas processors must work to optimise their entire value chain to keep pace with rising global demand and constantly changing market conditions.

Natural gas has experienced rapid demand growth, outpacing growth in crude oil and replacing coal as a fuel in many areas of the world. Earlier this year, the US Department of Energy announced that natural gas now accounts for more power generation than coal in the US. Natural gas is recognised as a good source of energy for a number of economic, operational and environmental reasons:
• Gas is low risk (technically and financially)
• Gas has lower carbon emissions than other fossil fuels (50 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions compared to coal, depending on type of coal and how it is burned)
• Gas processing and downstream power plants can be built relatively quickly
• Gas reserves are more globally distributed than other fossil fuels like oil.

Over the past decade, the natural gas industry has undergone a number of major developments that have influenced operational and business strategies. New technologies are helping companies realise increased benefits from production and transformation, to transportation and distribution.

Unconventional natural gas resources (shale gas and coal bed methane) are having a significant impact on the global energy and petrochemical industries. Lower cost North American natural gas and natural gas liquids (NGLs) from shale are revitalising the North American petrochemical business by providing cost advantaged petrochemical feedstocks for the production of plastics and other chemical derivatives.

Current industry challenges
While most petroleum industry analysts have been focused on falling crude oil prices, natural gas producers also are battling to remain profitable in a low price environment. Companies are operating in a complex and integrated gas value chain comprised of gas production, gathering, dehydration, sweetening, stabilisation, fractionation, processing, gas-to-liquid (GTL), liquefied natural gas (LNG), storage, pipelines, and gas distribution.

In the current economic climate, the need for operational efficiency is critical. Exploration, development and production costs are rising, and margins are being squeezed. Likewise, a shortage of technical experience and talent has escalated the cost of human resources and with the expected retirements of a large percentage of engineering and operations professionals over the coming decade, this shortage could become even more acute.

To be successful in the face of these many challenges, gas producers must answer a number of strategic questions:
• How can technological and ‚Ä®operational expertise be used to gain a competitive edge?
• What is the best way to integrate networks for key assets such as gas processing plants, pipelines, export facilities, and so on?
• How can the value of gas projects be maximised with faster speed of implementation?
• What is the best strategy for monetising methane and NGLs?
• What can companies do about their aging asset base?
• Should firms shut down, upgrade or replace outdated facilities?
• How should companies stage investments and plan for future growth?

To increase profits, companies must maximise product recovery while lowering capital expenditures and operating expenses – no simple task, as it often entails increasing energy efficiency, reducing reactive maintenance, extending asset life, and eliminating unplanned downtime. This effort involves improving everything from process optimisation to operator training and effectiveness.

Many financial outlays, including capital expenditures and operational costs, are associated with maintaining equipment. However, they are relatively insignificant compared to the cost of installed assets going down, which can result in a major shortfall in production. Uptime has a direct impact on a company’s bottom line.

Gas producers have an equally urgent need to reduce risk, even as they take on new challenges. Continuous attention to this issue is essential to prevent pollution, protect public and worker safety and health, and safeguard the environment. Governments and municipal bodies have enacted strict regulations to reduce the potential impact of energy development.

Natural gas is also a highly fragmented industry, with different players in each segment of the value chain. A company may have different stakes in assets, simultaneously acting as owners, operators and suppliers, further complicating the situation. Intelligent strategies are needed to facilitate improved communication and collaboration amongst all parties.

Growth in the gas value chain is incrementally driven by new production and new markets. Yet throughput capacity cannot increase unless capacity at every point along the value chain is expanded. There is always a bottleneck in the value chain and the speed of completing the expansion of that element affects operations and profit for every operator in the value chain. Integrated automation with gas processing equipment can significantly reduce the impact of these bottlenecks by compressing schedules up to 30 percent and reducing commissioning time with flexible integrated modular solutions. Flexible universal automation allows changes to be made programmatically rather than the traditional rework to physical cabinets, leading to faster start-ups.

Latest technology developments
Selection of technology is an important factor when it comes to achieving operational excellence in the natural gas industry. The interconnected gas value chain demands integrated systems and applications, enabling a lower total cost of ownership and, at the same time, increasing asset utilisation to help maximise profitability.

Gas producers seek to empower an already overstretched operations team to sustain performance in a dynamic environment. Effective solutions are needed to meet rigorous project requirements, support integrated control and safety systems, and optimise overall lifecycle performance.

The main impetus for advanced technologies in gas production starts with the development of new resources – both conventional and unconventional – followed by upgrades to older platforms, exploration and extraction from ageing wells, and the increasing emphasis on safety and security.

While automation improvements offer many potential benefits across the energy sector, some of the biggest opportunities are in enhanced production. Advanced control strategies allow operators to maximise asset and well integrity, increase field recovery, and improve throughput. Intelligent field devices (smart pressure, temperature, and level transmitters; flow meters; gas regulators; and analytical instruments) can provide data on critical operational parameters. Robust control systems enable assets to operate at near optimal utilisation to improve profitability and performance. They span from single loop controllers and remote terminal units (RTU), to a full size distributed control systems (DCS). Related solutions include skid-mounted gas metering and pressure regulating stations, station automation systems, gas management software, and advanced meter data management.
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