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The secret to unlocking efficiency for the energy transition? One exec says data governance

Nick Purday, IT director of emerging digital technology for ConocoPhillips, presented at the Reuters Events Data-Driven Oil and Gas Conference 2023 to help dispel any myths about digital twins. Photo courtesy of Shuttershock.

As Nick Purday, IT director of emerging digital technology for ConocoPhillips, began his presentation at the Reuters Events Data-Driven Oil and Gas Conference 2023 in Houston yesterday, he lamented at missing the opportunity to dispel any myths about digital twins given his second-to-last time slot of the conference.

He may have sold himself short.

No less than a hush fell over the crowd as Purday described one of the more challenging applications of digital twins his team tackled late last year. Purday explained, “The large diagram [up there], that’s two trains from our LNG facility. How long did that take to build? We built that one in a month.”

It’s been years since an upstream oil and gas audience has gasped, but Purday swept the crowd with admiration for the swift, arduous task undertaken by his team.

He then addressed the well-known balance of good/fast/cheap in a rare glimpse under the hood of project planning for such novel technology. “As soon as you move into remote visualization applications – think Alaska, think Norway – then you’re going to get a pretty good return on your investment. Think 3-to-1,” Purday explains. “As you would expect, those simulation digital twins, those are the ones where you get huge value. Optimizing the energy requirements of an LNG facility – huge value associated with that.

“Independently, Forrester did some work recently and came up with a 4-to-1 return, so that fits exactly with our data set,” Purday continued before casually bringing up the foundation for their successful effort.

“If you’ve got good data, then it doesn’t take that long and you can do these pretty effectively,” Purday stated plainly.

Another wave of awe rippled across the room.

In an earlier panel session, Nathan McMahan, data strategy chief at CoP, commented on the shared responsibility model for data in the industry. “When I talked to a lot of people across the organization, three common themes commonly filtered up: What’s the visibility, access, and trust of data?” McMahan observed.

Strong data governance stretches across the organization, but the Wells team, responsible for drilling and completions activity, stood out to McMahan with its approach to data governance.

“They had taken ownership of [the] data and partnered with business units across the globe to standardize best practices between some of the tools and data ingestion methods, even work with suppliers and contractors, [to demonstrate] our expectations for how we take data,” McMahan explained. “They even went a step further to bring an IT resource onto their floor and start to create roles of the owners and the stewards and the custodians of the data. They really laid that good foundation and built upon that with some of the outcomes they wanted to achieve with machine learning techniques and those sorts of things.“

The key, McMahan concluded, is making the “janitorial effort [of] cleaning up data sustainable… and fun.”

The sentiment of fun continued in Purday's late afternoon presentation as he explained how the application went viral upon sharing it with 1 or 2 testers, crashing the email of the lead developer responsible for managing the model as he was flooded with questions and kudos.

Digital twin applications significantly reduce the carbon footprint created by sending personnel to triage onsite concerns for LNG, upstream, and refining facilities in addition to streamlining processes and enabling tremendous savings. The application Purday described allowed his team to discover an issue previously only resolved by flying someone to a remote location where they would likely spend days testing and analyzing the area to diagnose the problem.

The digital twin found the issue in 10 minutes, and the on-site team resolved the problem within the day.

The LNG operations team now consistently starts their day with a bit of a spark, using the digital twin during morning meetings to help with planning and predictive maintenance.

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A View From HETI

This latest incident is more than a sign that Houstonians must take control of their power. Photo by Eric Turnquist

On the evening of May 16, a devastating “derecho” storm howled through Houston. Nearly 800,000 customers lost power. Many were still without electricity days later, as a heat wave baked neighborhoods that couldn’t power air conditioners.

It was yet another unwelcome reminder about the precariousness of the power grid.

These outages followed repeated grid warnings, conservation calls, and near-misses last summer and the summer before, as well as the catastrophic Winter Storm Uri freeze in February 2021.

The outages also preceded the increasingly extreme weather Texas faces and staggering growth on the ERCOT grid: after growing about 1 percent a year for 20 years, the power grid covering most of Texas may need to be 78 percent bigger by 2030.

So, this latest incident is more than a sign that Houstonians must take control of their power. It also shows that more and more, the state needs you to act.

Like any other market, a power grid runs on supply and demand. The supply of Texas energy is growing, which is great. At the same time, the economy is booming, leaving Texas setting demand records almost constantly. Generators can’t always keep up, especially when power plants break down or don’t produce electricity — there’s about an 18 percent chance that Texas will face at least one grid emergency this summer.

With odds like that, it’s no wonder that more and more Texans are finding ways to live more powerfully. Many are investing in solar panels and energy storage devices like Tesla Powerwalls.

These systems let families and business owners generate electricity during the day, store it, and use it later when there’s an emergency or just when power is scarce. They protect people from high bills and blackouts; it’s no coincidence that just since last month's storm, we've seen a five-fold increase in leads, reflecting a huge growth in interest in solar power. Further, since the storm, 90 percent of new Houston-area solar customers have bought backup battery systems, compared to 50 percent in 2024 and less than 25 percent in 2023.

That pattern has repeated across the country after severe weather events.

Homeowners and business owners can also slash their bills by weatherizing houses and buildings, the way power plants did after Uri. Advanced devices that help people automatically, and voluntarily, reduce electricity use when the grid is stretched would also help.

These improvements and investments would help more than just homeowners and business owners — they’d help the entire power grid. Every kilowatt that someone doesn’t need or can generate themselves frees up power for other families and businesses across the grid. That helps Texas keep the lights on, especially if electricity demand is about to spike as dramatically as the state expects.

Texas already incentivizes conservation and generation at a large scale. For example, large users like manufacturers and crypto miners get paid by ERCOT for reducing electricity use when the grid is stretched. And just last year, the legislature passed a $10 billion program to help fund new gas power plants.

It’s past time to extend similar incentives to everyday Texans, especially when we’re increasingly called upon to help ERCOT keep the lights on.

If crypto companies get money for reducing electricity use when ERCOT asks them to, then residential and business customers deserve to get paid too. The state could help Texans invest in technologies and smart metering programs that cut bills andautomatically reward people for reducing use on the hottest afternoons and coldest mornings.

More than that, the state has got to do more to reward solar customers who generate electricity and return it to the grid when demand rises. These virtual power plants will increasingly provide vital power when the state badly needs it, and consumers need to be rewarded for it. (Fortunately, the state is looking at strategies to take better advantage of virtual power plants.)

Finally, if Texas is helping big generators build gas plants, it should figure out ways to help regular Texans install solar panels and battery storage units. Such systems obviously help protect Texans from power outages, but they also fortify the ERCOT grid by reducing the demand on it.

Last month’s derecho was exactly the sort of freak occurrence that will become more common as the weather grows more extreme. The best way to protect the grid from such catastrophes is to protect individual Texas customers as well.

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Bret Biggart is CEO of Freedom Solar Power, a Texas-based solar company.


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