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Tech firms ride North Sea revival

Rising technology firms are offering innovations that meet the efficiency needs of North Sea operators

A plethora of small technology companies, spun out of the oil and gas or local academic institutions, have sprung up to take advantage of the drive to keep the North Sea industry low-cost and competitive. Now they just need to convince the industry that it’s time for a change of approach.

Typical is East Coast Oil & Gas Engineering (EC-OG), a small Aberdeen-based technology company with an innovative idea for a subsea battery charged by power from ocean currents or tides. This offers the twin advantages of being green and a potential cost saver.

Established by a team of experienced upstream engineers in 2013, EC-OG recently completed successful tests of its Subsea Power Hub (SPH) at one of the European Marine Energy Centre sites in the Orkney Islands. The company is on the verge of deploying its first commercial device with a North Sea operator.

The SPH sits on the ocean bed, using small turbines to generate power from ocean currents, which can be as low as around 0.2 metres a second. This then charges an onboard battery with a capacity of around 300–500 kilowatt-hours, roughly the equivalent of three or four electric car batteries. That battery provides a stable power supply to seabed equipment, using an intelligent onboard processor, for at least five years without maintenance if necessary, according to EC-OG.

One of the first contracts for SPH could be to power seabed environmental-monitoring equipment, but in the longer-term EC-OG are targeting wider applications. One objective is to power subsea drilling installations such as Christmas trees, manifolds and associated sensors.

For example, the SPH could be a boon for companies trying to restart production rapidly from mature North Sea fields with subsea infrastructure in place, but without a functioning power supply. As well as providing power, the SPH is also capable of transmitting data acoustically, thus dispensing with costly risers carrying both power and data cables.

While batteries are already used to power subsea installations, replacing them is far from straightforward, as they need to be installed in pressure-resistant housings and be isolated from the cold to work at depth. The SPH works down to around 1,000 metres at present.

Paul Slorach, EC-OG’s business development manager, told Petroleum Economist that any technology that reduces the need for underwater activity is likely to be welcomed by the industry. “Changing a battery subsea is not easy—doing anything in the North Sea is not easy. It’s a really challenging environment,” he said.

The business environment is just as challenging, given the company must convince cash-strapped operators to invest in a new approach to their problems, even if that should save them money in the long run. Slorach said companies such as E0-OG needed to convince the engineers and others at the sharp end of operations that the technology would benefit their company. The hope then was they could persuade potential buyers’ commercial decision-makers to agree.

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