Matt Wilhoit, who is responsible for Siemens global Unconventional Oil & Gas business activities, including in-field electrical and mechanical power solutions, takes a look at the impact of high-tech.
Q: What kinds of “unconventional” things are you doing in oil & gas?
The term “unconventional” relates to any fossil-fuel extraction or production that requires more complex methods than traditional, conventional reservoir extraction. The oilfield is a traditional place that is slow to change, but Siemens is shaking things up a little by introducing mobile gas-turbine-powered microgrids to an operation that has been diesel-powered for decades. For us, this is business as usual considering that we have helped many industries transition toward electrification, such as the mobility industry with high-speed trains. However, for our oilfield customers, adopting our mobile electric solutions is an “unconventional” approach. By electrifying pressure pumping operations on a frac spread, i.e., replacing diesel engines that mechanically drive pumps with electric motors and variable-speed drives powered by gas turbines, we are helping our customers reduce fuel and maintenance costs, improve safety, lower emissions, and ultimately increase their profitability. On top of this, our electric solution allows us to build in valuable digital controls and automation.
Q: What technologies are key to innovation in the energy sector?
We’re at the beginning of a transition in technology, and I see a number of up-and-coming technologies that will make a big difference. Hybrid battery solutions for oilfield applications is one—batteries are becoming more efficient and easier to transport. Optimizing energy use and fuel costs is key. I also see artificial intelligence, machine learning, and Big Data playing major roles in optimizing entire systems. If you have all your equipment communicating with each other, and also linked to your reservoir and process data, you’ll have a much better understanding and control of what is happening in the well. You’ll be able to predict and prevent equipment downtime, reduce the number of people on site, and have big improvements in safety.
Q: Which of those technologies will have the biggest impact the soonest, and in what way?
Big Data is something people in this industry have been talking about for a while, but, to my mind, we have not yet fully utilized the amount of data being generated and captured. So artificial intelligence that can leverage this vast amount of data will have a big impact going forward. When machines can reference prior human decisions and link that to real-time process performance, better and faster decisions can be made. Remote diagnostics and predictive analytics are here now. But AI will help us to further develop that combination of applications that optimizes a solution from end to end and it is where we need to focus our efforts. Because the big question is: How do we get the value out of the data we capture? Energy companies are still struggling to figure that out. Digitalization will continue to improve operations, and even small percentage points of efficiency improvements can mean millions to the bottom line for the energy industry.
Q: Houston is a storied place in the history of American energy production. What does the American refinery city of the future look like?
I’ve worked in refineries and upstream sites before, so I know what degrees of risk they pose to workers. The more we can put automation in place, the fewer people we’ll have in high-risk locations. What does that mean for the energy city of the future? I think it means a bit of a skill shift. We’ll see needs for skills in remote operation, coding, cognitive computing, and additive manufacturing. Given that Siemens is such a large software company, especially when you look at the acquisitions we’ve made, we’re well suited to guide this transition. There will always be a need for workers in some capacity at industrial sites, but we’ll have to find the right balance. Ultimately, we’ll have to retrain and reskill some of the workforce. However, Houston will continue to thrive and likely gain a “tech city” reputation similar to Austin’s.
Q: Early on in your career you left the automotive industry to get into oil & gas—and you drive an electric car?
I can’t sell the idea of electrifying the oilfield and not drive an electric car. And I’m not the only oil & gas guy in Texas driving one—a couple major oil & gas CEOs now drive electric cars. I waited for two years to get my Tesla. When I first heard about Tesla doing a mainstream production car, I had my doubts, especially coming from the automotive industry. But it is an amazing car. It has instant power when you press the pedal, and lower fuel and lower maintenance.
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