Subsea factories are no longer a distant dream.
Subsea technology has been around for decades, but increasingly demanding applications on the seafloor require more reliable power and sophisticated automation technologies. The offshore industry is moving functionality from the platform to the bottom of the sea to achieve even greater levels of productivity on smaller and less accessible oil and gas fields.
Most people from the oil and gas industry, whether on the supplier side or with the oil companies, have seen that there is a growing interest in new underwater technology. Visionary operators, especially Statoil in Norway, is aiming for complete production facilities for oil and gas on the seabed (to achieve even greater levels of productivity). We call them subsea factories – and they are no longer only a distant dream.
We know where we are heading, and we know how to get there. We have already come a long way. Subsea pumps are already on the seabed. Gas compressors are right around the corner. The next big step is the underwater separation of oil, water and sand from the well stream. For a company dealing with power and automation solutions, such as ABB, we see three main challenges of subsea production:
- Efficient and reliable power transmission over vast distances, under water
- Robust equipment that can withstand the stress and pressure on the seabed and operate without maintenance for long periods of time
- Development of reliable communication, monitoring and control of these subsea factories
In ABB we are continuously working with all of these areas. A criteria for success is strategic R&D in partnership with the oil companies. This means that the risk involved in developing new technology is shared and that the oil companies get access to exactly the technology they need. The technology will be qualified, meaning that it can be re-used in other projects.
Today, the wells on the seabed are either tied to platforms, floating production units (FPSOs) or connected directly to onshore facilities. For example, there is absolutely nothing to see on the surface of the water off the vast Ormen Lange and Snøhvit gas fields in Norway. For both practical and economical reasons oil companies chose not to have any surface installations on the two biggest developments on the Norwegian continental shelf the last decade.
Moving technology from the platform or the onshore facility and down to the seabed, simply means lower investment and operational costs in the long run. The smaller oil and gas fields become more profitable and the recovery rate increases. In other words: with technology, we are able to increase the number of profitable fields and their life spans.
I have followed the development of subsea technology closely since its beginnings as only ideas in the 1980s to today’s reality which are subsea facilities with an increasing amount of hi-tech equipment under the sea. And we can now solve challenges in terms of power supply and process control over vast distances, in greater depths of water and in increasingly harsh conditions.