There is a greener energy solution

“It’s not possible to make the transition from fossil fuel to renewable energy in a heartbeat,” says Eirik Børsheim, Key Expert Energy Storage at Siemens, Norway. He’s one of a team of five people pushing to transform this project from concept to reality. “It’s something that’s going to take time and, in the meantime, we have to make the process more energy efficient.”

Alongside oil exploration company Aker BP, Eirik and his team are working towards building the world’s first zero-emission autonomous oil platform, which could start operating off the coast of Norway as soon as 2023. The Norwegian government will be responsible for giving the project the green light, with the concept selection set to be made by March 2019.

Although plans for how the rig will be powered (and how it will look) are still to be confirmed, it’s likely it will at first be run by a subsea cable pulled from onshore, feeding the installation with energy from the Norwegian national grid. Emergency power would then be fed to the platform via another installation in the North Sea. In the future, there’s the potential to introduce alternative technology like offshore wind.

“In terms of environmental footprint,” says Eirik, “this installation could have a negative environmental impact in the future — meaning it would produce more renewable energy than it uses. It would still pull up oil from the bottom of the sea, but at least it could do so in a way that reduces emissions and produces completely green energy.”

The excess wind power produced could then be pumped back into the national grid, which would then be used to power other services, like electric cars.The task, known as the North of Alvheim Krafla Askja project (NOAKA), is the first given to the Field Centre Platform Alliance, which is a new agreement between future-facing companies Siemens, Kvaerner, Aker Solutions, and Aker BP. The group works together to provide insights on how the platform can be designed to the best standard possible, and when this project is complete, it’s expected they will continue to work together to push the industry further.

Putting the plans into practice:

Eirik is honest — the project won’t remove the need for fossil fuels, but it will revamp the current process. “It will enable us to extract these resources without any environmental impact,” he says. “Then, once that part of the industry has been fixed, you can take the oil and put it into high-technology power plants, where it can be burned in a much cleaner, better way.”

The project is still a work in progress, but the current plan is to automate various functions to allow the rig to be controlled remotely. Drones would continuously survey the site to check equipment for anything that could lead to a spillage. Eirik says this means oil spills will soon be consigned to the past.

“Previously, the technology simply hasn’t been ready,” he says. ”Now, most of the technology is there and the elements that aren’t ready can be achieved in a relatively short time,” he says. Once the platform is running successfully in Norway, Eirik believes it has the potential to be rolled out globally. “Our vision is to change the industry,” he says. “We want to set a new standard for how things are done.”

Where do humans fit in?

Change of such epic proportions isn’t going to quietly slip through the net unnoticed by workers. After all, the ambition is to make offshore jobs entirely extinct. By 2023, it’s expected that just 20 people will be required on the platform at one time.

“If you can manage to take all the people that work offshore and put them on a control station onshore, you reduce the risk of flying people out there,” he says. “You also reduce the cost of actually having people offshore and they can just live like normal people in a city close to the control station.

”And the plan doesn’t stop there. The long-term goal is to reduce the number of people actually on the rig to zero. “We don’t have enough time to ensure everything is completely unmanned by 2023, but in the long run it’s definitely the goal to not have a single person on board,” says Eirik.

 This all sounds great from a cost-cutting and safety perspective, but what does it mean for people’s jobs? It’s no exaggeration to say it’s going to change everything. “A big challenge is underway to transform everybody’s mindset. It’s not just Siemens, it’s other companies like the oil operators, rig builders, engineers, and all the people currently working on rigs.”

Understandably, people might be worried about losing their career to technology, but Eirik is clear that won’t be the case. Instead, it’s about learning to adapt. “Jobs will definitely change. If we achieve autonomous, unmanned operations, platform managers and everybody else who works on the rigs will find their everyday working life will be completely different — they will no longer be on the platform,” says Eirik.

It doesn’t mean workers should panic, after all, technology can only go so far. “We are 100% aware that it’s not possible to replace a person with 20-30 years of experience with some piece of equipment. You need to have ears and eyes, as well as the know-how,” he says. Instead, workers who once operated machinery on the platform will move to control rooms onshore. They’ll need to adapt their skills to meet new demands, but Eirik says people will not lose their jobs to machines . 

“Maybe they can be drone pilots, or they could operate inspection tools, or participate to a much larger extent than they have before in the engineering and design of the systems,” says Eirik. Far from being a cause for concern, he says the technology will equip people with an opportunity to make more of an impact by reducing the time they spend on manual tasks.

“Previously, I don’t think knowledge sharing between the different parts of the lifecycle has been too great, but now it will free up a lot of good people to participate and actually make the systems better,” he says.

 There are still five years to go until the platform could launch, and plenty of work must be done to ensure it can function in the way it should, but Eirik is proud to be part of a team that is changing the world by bringing oil rigs into the 21st century and beyond.

“This project is going to be a huge game changer,” he says, adding that it will set the bar for every future project launch. “Siemens is always striving to be the front-runner — we’re not scared of taking a leap into the future to do something that nobody has done before.”

Eirik Børsheim graduated from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in 2014. He joined Siemens in the same year as a Commissioning Engineer. Now, his role is in Key Expert Energy Storage at Siemens, Norway.