In the first quarter of 2023, wind power contributed more electricity than gas in the UK for the first time ever, making up almost a third of its total electricity generation at 32.4% (24TWh) – a sizable increase from 26.8% in 2022. For many, wind has long been the most promising renewable energy option, and recent decades have seen significant investment across the UK and Europe – indeed, almost £19bn was invested in offshore wind in the UK alone between 2016–2021, according to RenewableUK.

However, we’re a long way away from being able to rely solely on renewable sources, and even with the rise of wind power, hydrocarbons still make up a significant amount of the UK’s energy mix. Gas contributed 31.7% (23.4TWh) of the UK’s electricity generation in 2023’s first quarter, and coal and oil are in the mix too, to a lesser extent.

Of course, the transition to renewable power is just that – a period of transition. While investment in green energy sources continues to march forward, there are still unresolved challenges around renewables. For wind power, its main issue is that it’s intermittent and varying by its very nature, and would rely on immense battery storage to meet demand during still periods. Solar has similar issues – as the amount of sunlight varies from day to day, so too will energy production.

Until battery technology is developed to a point where it can meet the challenge caused by full reliance on renewables – and that development is currently making progress day by day – even the most optimistic forecasts see a need for hydrocarbons in the foreseeable future. It’s important, then, that fossil fuel production and consumption is handled in a way that seeks to minimise its carbon footprint as much as possible.

Electrifying oil and gas platforms

Minimising the emissions of existing oil and gas infrastructure is an important milestone in the world’s journey towards net zero, notes Simon Wynne, head of energy industries UK and Ireland at ABB. “Decarbonising offshore production [of oil and gas] is crucial – particularly for the UK, but globally as well,” he says. “When you look at offshore oil and gas, two-thirds of the CO2 impact is from power generation to run the assets – so it’s clearly the target to focus on and go after given that need for hydrocarbons within our energy supply and fuel supply for quite some time.”

ABB is working to help electrify oil and gas platforms in the North Sea, accelerating the decarbonisation process and thereby curbing the impacts of climate change – also a vital component for the oil and gas industry’s North Sea Transmission Deal emissions reduction targets. Today, most offshore oil and gas installations in the North Sea produce their own electricity using gas turbines, which equate to approximately 21kg of CO2 for every barrel produced for UK operations, according to Rystad and makeup about a quarter of Norway’s total emissions of both NOX and CO2.

“ABB’s role is really around electrification, automation and, more and more so, digitalisation as well – the use of data in controlling and optimising systems,” Wynne explains. The main challenge when electrifying offshore oil and gas platforms is to be able to manage and control power sources, which requires specific skills and expertise to ensure that the power system reliability and integrity is maintained. ABB has considerable experience in deploying electrical and control systems for offshore oil and gas operations, making it perfectly positioned to support the electrification of these assets.

Electrifying oil and gas platforms involves replacing the gas turbines’ energy supply with either power from shore, subsea power platforms or renewable energy like offshore wind. ABB has been active in developing and delivering connection to shore for the best part of 20 years, with one of the company’s earliest projects being the Troll A platform – the world’s largest offshore gas platform, located off the coast of Norway.

Onshore electricity has a number of advantages over offshore generation. 96% of Norway’s electricity comes from renewable sources, enabling Troll to run as a low-carbon operation. A power-from-shore system has a higher level of efficiency and reliability, with fewer moving parts requiring service. Moving away from gas turbine generation offshore means more gas available for sale and frees up valuable space on the platform.

“Power from shore benefits from stability,” Wynne explains. “You can completely remove diesel generation from the offshore asset, but on the downside, it’s dependent on the rest of the infrastructure that’s providing that power.” While Norway’s electricity may be mostly renewable, other nations haven’t hit that milestone just yet – and there’s only so much you can reduce a platform’s carbon footprint when its running on fossil-fuelgenerated electricity.

While the UK lags some ways behind Norway in terms of its power-from-shore capabilities, it leads the way when it comes to offshore wind integration into the national electricity grid, which provides considerable benefits when looking to connect offshore wind to power the operations of an oil and gas platform.

“If you flip the connection to offshore wind [compared with power from shore], the pros and cons are really turned on their head,” Wynne says. “In terms of stability, it’s obviously variable power – so the capability to fully decommission or fully replace diesel or other fuel generation at platform is not there yet.” However, the benefits of offshore wind integration is that the power source is much closer to the oil and gas platform, and the offshore wind connection can be redeployed into the main grid system or an offshore microgrid after the end of the useful life of any offshore asset.

Back in Norway, ABBs work on the upcoming Hywind Tampen wind farm serves as a case in point. The turbines will produce 88MW of clean energy, making it the world’s first floating wind platform to power offshore oil and gas platforms in the Snorre & Gullfaks Oil field. The integration of offshore wind power, backed up by flexible onboard gas supply, will reduce power consumption by 35% and is expected to reduce CO2 emissions from the field by 200,000t per annum.

ABB is delivering control, safety and power management systems to the project, the latter of which will control the power generation from the wind farms so they can be connected to the oil and gas operations.

Battery matters

“First of all, we should be aware that oil and gas assets don’t require a huge demand of power – we are talking about 50–100MW,” says Diogo Costa, sales lead, Offshore Wind, at ABB. “This could be perfectly combined with offshore wind power generation, where this 100% renewable power could be combined with battery energy storage – so that when you don’t have power coming from the wind farm, you can manage the asset with power from earlier.”

Of course, battery energy storage presents its own challenges. Implementing such a solution at scale, particularly when looking to connect offshore wind power back into the main energy grid, would require a considerable amount of storage – which would be both quite costly and also tie up much-needed critical minerals.

With that in mind, ABB is also involved in the Deep Purple project, which looks to combine offshore wind power with an alternative to battery energy storage – providing the automation, power, telecommunication and measurement systems for the pilot project in Kongsberg, Norway.

“This is a fantastic project, led by our colleagues in Norway, who worked on the very early phases of this approach,” says Costa. “We provided [Deep Purple] consultation using ABB’s Process Power Simulation (PPSim) software – a simulation programme – which we used to simulate all the conditions and scenarios for the project. We also worked on the early phase of the perceptual design to help mitigate any risk associated with the electrical management system.”

Deep Purple hopes to offer stable power to off-grid consumers like offshore installations and remote islands, storing and re-electrifying hydrogen so that it essentially functions as a high-capacity battery. The pilot opened at TechnipFMC’s Norwegian headquarters on 12 January, though its initial concept stems back to The Research Council of Norway’s Idea Lab in 2016.

The project makes use of excess wind power to split water into hydrogen and oxygen by electrolysis during periods of high winds, Wynne explains. Reverse osmosis is used to convert seawater into the freshwater needed for the electrolysis process. The hydrogen is then stored under pressure down at the seabed. “In low winds [where wind energy cannot satisfy demand], the hydrogen is then used as the main power source on the platform,” Wynne adds, with fuel cells converting it back into electricity.

The pilot project, he notes, will examine how effective this whole system is, and how much backup generation will be called upon. “Getting to zero would be perfect – that’s the aim – but how close to zero will we get?” he says. “The point is to remain 100% clean, providing there’s sufficient power from both the over-generation battery process and release of energy from the battery. It’s really about getting that balance – to maximise the process and remove [the need for] any final backup or support, whether it be the connection to shore or a generational asset.”

Similarly, the small-scale pilot will help to model cost the technology as well, Wynne adds, noting that if the project is successful, it will remove the main issues facing those looking to use offshore wind to power offshore platforms. “It’s kind of an ideal solution for offshore oil and gas and is certainly the method that we’ve been working most closely with.”

Optimise the options

After its work with the Deep Purple project, ABB is looking to take its experience from that process and bring its solutions to the UK market to help its customers optimise solutions for their offshore oil and gas assets.

One of ABB’s strongest advantages is that it’s put into practice “not just for the Deep Purple but with multiple projects,” Wynne explains, “[is that] we have a good study group. We’re able to engage early on, looking at what the optimal solution might be – and that’s agnostic to ABB technology. It’s not about looking at what the best ABB technology and processes are, it’s about looking at what’s best for the overall process – what’s the best model for your specific project.”

Costa agrees, adding, “We have around 8,000 engineers around the world supporting energy industries and staying closely connected across our five hubs, sharing information and expertise amongst our colleagues. Furthermore, collaboration with all divisions across ABB is vital, with around 105,000 people in total worldwide.”

Such an outlook is invaluable, particularly as there is no one-size-fits-all solution for offshore oil and gas operations, as we’ve seen. Even beyond the use of power from shore or renewables, ABB is also looking into the many uses of subsea power, carbon capture systems and more, all which come with different benefits and challenges.

However, what is true across the board is that if we’re to continue to make use of fossil fuels in the global energy mix, then more work still needs to be done to reduce their environmental impact and the emissions they release. Electrifying offshore oil and gas platforms is just one step out of many that must be taken, but that doesn’t make it any less important.

This article first appeared in World Wind Technology magazine.