Why Australia must make more of its 42,000km of gas pipelines intelligent

Gas pipelines with city in distance (russia)
Image: Shutterstock

By Alexey Lebedev, Vice President Pacific at AVEVA

Balancing energy demand and supply is crucial to Australia’s decarbonisation, and requires infrastructure operators to find new ways to assure excellence in their operations.

Australia, like many countries, is at a pivotal moment in determining how best to meet its future energy needs. The energy sector has a critical role to play in helping Australia achieve net zero emissions targets by 2050. Exactly what its contribution looks like is under active consideration.

The role of natural gas in the future energy mix is currently being defined. The Future Gas Strategy, led by the Department of Industry, Science and Resources (DISR) and set for release in mid-2024, will lay out plans for gas production, consumption and substitution in Australia, over medium (2035) and long-term (2050) horizons.

Gas is predicted to “continue to play a significant role in the global energy system for at least the next 10-15 years”, according to one recent assessment. A separate report by Boston Consulting Group suggests gas “will remain essential through the energy transition including for industrial heat, peaking power generation and household space heating—especially in cold climates.”

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But a delicate balance needs to be struck “to ensure sufficient—but not excess—supply of gas to meet demand at all stages of the energy transition.” As DISR notes, “Producing this supply means continued private sector investment in gas developments, even under scenarios with large and rapid reductions in gas use from consumers embracing electrification or industrial shifts to hydrogen.”

This is, in many ways, not a new conversation for Australia’s gas sector.

Domestic supplies and export volumes have received close regulatory attention in the past couple of years, as focus becomes more trained on local energy security.

Transmission pipelines, in particular, are anticipated to play an increased role in rerouting gas to address supply gaps in some states and territories in the 2027-28 timeframe.

How well operators are able to balance domestic demand, while not limiting their export revenue potential, will largely depend on how well and how quickly they can transform their environments.

The key is to more dynamically understand and manage supply and demand for gas volumes in Australia, and to get more predictive, in order to avoid shortfalls, improve domestic energy security and maintain their licence to export.

In short, more of the 42,000km of transmission pipeline infrastructure that Australia relies on to bring gas from its source to users (or ports) needs to be transformed into intelligent pipeline infrastructure.

Intelligent pipelines can quickly turn massive amounts of data collected as gas transit the network into wisdom that generates business value. By using existing operational data as well as new data sources, operators can take a model-focused approach that puts them on the path to operational excellence.

Silhouette of gas plant and worker (strike hancock)
Gas plant (Image: Shutterstock)

Architecting for intelligence

At the core of an intelligent pipeline is having a way to collect raw data from all the systems associated with pipeline infrastructure and operations—SCADA, pipeline-specific applications or management systems, ERP systems and sensors—and then contextualise it.

Unfortunately, many operators today jump too far ahead, trying to layer in cloud, machine learning, edge, IIoT, and predictive analytics into their operations before having a data and analytics foundation in place.  While adopting these solutions can potentially deliver new and valuable insights, operators must first enact solid data management and analytics strategies.

Underpinning these strategies is typically an enterprise-level, real-time data management platform. Comprehensive data management systems can lay the foundation for operations data integration, data validation, and analytics.

Once pipeline data is centralised and standardised in a data management platform, it is ready to be fed into advanced analytics and simulation models, with the ultimate goals of optimising overall pipeline throughput, process conditions, and even predicting equipment failures.

Taking this a step further, pipeline operators can achieve additional operational efficiency by developing a ‘digital twin’ of the entire pipeline asset. The digital twin has the benefit of ‘seeing’ both operational history and real-time data for all parts of the pipeline infrastructure. That intelligence can help it to contextualise anomalous data in real-time, allowing past actions to inform future decision-making.

Gas pipelines set against beautiful sunset (germany gas)
Gas pipelines (Image: Shutterstock)

What good looks like

An intelligent pipeline strategy enables infrastructure operators to create new capabilities, new business models, and innovate ahead of the competition.

By deploying information management systems, powerful analytics, automation of workflows, and driving behavioural change in the workforce, gas companies can evolve and change how work is performed to build a sustainable, profitable organisation.

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Operators stand to make gains in several functional areas.

First, a data-centric approach helps operators to capture and retain workforce knowledge. Without knowledge capture, much of an organisation’s daily operational understanding of how equipment or a process functions runs the risk of walking out the door each day. This understanding of internal operations is a crucial input to future strategic decision-making to optimise supply and meet decarbonisation targets.

More broadly than knowledge capture, technology—such as advanced simulation tools—are key to helping operators navigate the energy transition.

Intelligent pipeline software is being utilised to decarbonise operations, reduce carbon intensity and ensure compliance; gain visibility into carbon performance, set baseline and identify areas of improvement; prevent environmental incidents, manage energy use and minimise waste with real-time monitoring and optimisation; and to design and deliver low-carbon assets and processes through efficient facility design and advanced process simulation.

By modelling gas flow behaviours and predicting loads for current and future gas days in near real time, pipeline operators can better balance supply and demand, optimise capacity, and adhere to future operating conditions.

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