How automation is enabling the energy sector’s transformation

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by Miranda Taylor, CEO, National Energy Resources Australia (NERA)

While transitioning towards a low carbon economy, Australia’s energy sector is faced with balancing energy security, affordability and accountability. Here, Miranda Taylor, CEO of NERA, explores how the industry will be guided in this change by new forms of automation and digitisation.

More than 100 years ago, Robert Frost’s protagonist made an infamous choice between two roads that diverged in a yellow wood. He chose the road less travelled and looking back ‘…that has made all the difference’.

Yet Frost then observes that the roads had in fact been worn ‘…really about the same’. Perhaps he was pointing to the human dendency to look back from the future on the different roads we could have taken, aware that all choices have consequences.

A century on from Frost, I can find his famous poem online in seconds. The speed of technology has fundamentally changed the way we source information and make decisions. Frost today would check Google Maps, refresh his smartphone compass or GPS navigation app, and be halfway down ‘a right’ road in no time. The Pandora’s Box that is automation technology is well and truly open. There is no going back.

But just because artificial intelligence, robotics and autonomous vehicles are here, should we take heed of Frost? Will we look back in the future and understand now that we still have choices that will ensure technology works for all of us, not just a few?

Australia and our energy sector certainly have a hard road ahead. Together we must come to grips with the confluence of tectonic forces including climate change, ubiquitous connectivity and the rising tide of automation and digitisation that is impacting on what we understand as economic growth, jobs, work and society.

This challenge however, is too often framed in a polarised way – either as a dire threat or instant saviour. The truth is technology is neither. It can unleash terrible consequences, but it can also create extraordinary opportunities. This should both excite and unite us to discover and make clear choices together.

The real difference between choosing our roads today and the choice made by Frost is not that we have technology to aid us, though we do, but that he made his choice alone whereas we must explore and choose our roads together.

So, more prosaically, what does all this mean for the automation of the Australian energy sector?

Supporting Australia’s traditional energy resources sector

Australia’s energy sector is facing the challenge of balancing security, affordability and accountability while transitioning towards a low carbon economy, and this will be guided, for better or worse, by increased automation across all energy industries.

So first, let’s be clear about the supply side of energy. Despite the tendency for the energy debate to become zero sum – a dystopian old energy vs new energy constraint – the fact is Australia’s energy supply will remain varied.

The energy transition will be just that – a movement that includes some mix of gas, coal and hybrid solutions for at least the coming decades as renewables become increasingly economic and competitive, and form a substantial proportion of the supply market.

It is therefore imperative the traditional energy sector transforms in efficiency and waste minimisation and becomes low carbon. In this way, our journey towards a decarbonised energy future cannot occur without supporting Australia’s traditional energy resources sector and leveraging Australia’s global competitive advantage, existing infrastructure, assets and technology into a smart, high value and sustainable domestic energy sector that can reliably meet Australia’s future energy needs.

If this is Australia’s energy journey, then automation and digital technology are helping to steer the wheel. They are also the key to realising a more flexible, networked and integrated renewable energy market.

New tech and increased talent

Building on the capital discipline and cost structure focus of recent years, the energy resources sector is now developing and accessing the talent and knowledge to find, adapt and apply digital and automation technologies. We see this today in leveraged smart networked assets, autonomous sensors, Artificial Intelligence, robotics, drones and remote operating vehicles.

We see where the industry is heading with advanced data analytics that optimise performance and productivity through the digital integration of people, assets/equipment plus open process control technology to maximise efficiency and reliability.

Figure 1  BP Energy Outlook, 2017 Edition

Elsewhere, the move to open process control platforms and away from proprietary technology owned by a few large technology companies who have kept the market closed will have significant implications for the supply chain.

The disruption to the supply chain brought about by automation and digital technology will also be an enabler – creating huge opportunity for innovative Australian startups and SMEs, and for new partnerships between these SMEs and industry and researchers.

In a practical sense, the rapid penetration of renewable energy technologies is, on the one hand, being driven by societal demand, but on the other is enabled by new tech becoming increasingly commercial, competitive and affordable.

In the sector’s drive to manage costs, achieve efficiencies and reduce waste, new partnerships have already emerged, and this trend will continue as energy resources companies look to the future and diversify into technology organisations.

For example, microgrids behind the meter can be deployed onto remote sites both onshore and offshore, and the energy resources sector can utilise their remote site expertise and infrastructure to partner with renewables (wind, wave and solar energy) to hydrogen, including for export.

Strategies for survival in this new landscape

Some changes are relatively predictable to plan for – but not all. The operating landscape today is distinguished not just by phenomenal leaps in data and analytics, and the integration and optimisation of assets, systems and operations, but also by the quickening pace at which these leaps are occurring.

In this environment, the key strategies for survival include the ability to use data in smart ways with enhanced data analytics skills and capabilities to identify and apply solutions through agile and fast processes, and building trust with new innovation partners.

It is at this point the central point of collaboration around our autonomous future is most critical. The importance of bringing together researchers, the private sector and governments to work together, fulfilling important but distinct roles during the energy transition, cannot be overstated.

We could do worse than to heed the call from Professor of Quantum Physics and 2018 Australian of the Year, Michelle Simmons, who said;

“I want Australians above all to be known as people who do the hard things … Australia offers a culture of academic freedom, openness to ideas and an amazing willingness to pursue ambitious goals …. Australia is a great place to discover things. I am grateful for that Australian spirit to give things a go and our enduring sense of possibility.”

Professor Simmons is helping put Australia at the forefront of what has been nicknamed the ‘Space Race’ of the computing era: theoretically solving a range of problems exponentially faster than the best-known algorithms running on traditional computer platforms or through digital technology.

Whilst it might take years for this technology to arrive on scale, the transformational change that it will bring serves to highlight the need for Australia to prepare and develop the core skills and attributes today to be able to adapt to whatever technological future comes.

Australia’s energy resources sector can learn from these examples. After all, we possess all the right ingredients to create a fair and inclusive automated energy future for all Australians – the willingness to explore, a culture of discovery, openness to new technology, rich diversity of resources, innovative researchers and expertise in operating in difficult environments.

Our way forward then should not be concerned with picking the road less travelled, or even the one well-trodden. It must be about making the journey towards a prosperous and more digitised energy future and getting there together. 

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