The energy sector is undergoing unprecedented change as global price fluctuations, consumer price arguments and debates over fossils versus renewables put the industry under an intense public and political spotlight.
But there is a lot going on in the background in developing new technologies and new businesses that take advantage of the opportunities on offer.
The Industry Growth Centre tasked with helping underpin the transformation – the National Energy Resources Australia, NERA – could hardly have arrived at a better moment in time.
NERA primarily represents oil and gas sectors, with a small amount of work with uranium and coal – the two latter industries not considered “high growth areas.”
But there are plenty of good examples of projects that show what is possible when the right idea is brought to the sector in the right way.
“We’re supporting a project that would transform the way we’re able to do a lot of subsea work on subsea wellheads and significantly reduce costs. In the order of millions, billions probably, in terms of some of the vessels that have to be out in the water with heavy equipment on them, and the size of the vessels,” NERA chief executive Miranda Taylor says.
“It’s a sector wide benefit, so it’s quite hard for them to get one client to do the final proof of the technology, even though the industry loves it. That’s where NERA can play a role – helping bring a couple of operators to find a way to support this,” she said.
“And once it’s demonstrated, those benefits will flow across the whole sector. But if that was locked in with one operator, then potentially the benefit gets locked off from the rest of the industry. We try to make sure the benefit stays open to the whole sector.”
Another positive is looking to other Industry Growth Centres to see if there are ways to learn from other industries to solve problems.
In one instance, NERA has been working with the medical industry to see whether medical technology used to deal with blockages in blood vessels could be applied to oil and gas pipelines. Such blockages – known as hydrates – are a massive cost on the industry.
“We’ve got a big research project going with the University of Western Australia, CSIRO and some others, and about 12 companies including some global companies looking at how we can address this hydrate problem,” says Ms Taylor.
“We’re increasingly trying to see if we could learn from the defence sector of the medical sector. What we have to do in Australia is stop being so siloed and fragmented and actually raise our heads up and have a look around,” she said.
Building the knowledge
“We try and reach out and see where we can partner to actually force multiply knowledge not just within industry sectors but across industry sectors.”
Building the knowledge
Ms Taylor says that while some look at energy resources as a product-based industry, it is a very high-tech area. It just needs to be careful about jumping onto every new idea.
“We are actually a knowledge-based economy. The amount of knowledge that informs the technologies that get deployed in oil and gas are big,” says Ms Taylor.
“We’re working subsea, the scale of the environments that we’re working in and the technology needed to work hundreds of metres under the water – it is like we’re working on the moon. I don’t think that’s visible to many people.”
To get the right knowledge into the right hands, Ms Taylor sees new education initiatives are important for the long-term. She wants to see better links between academic and vocational institutions to ensure both knowledge and practical skills are being attained by future members of the industry.
She highlights initiatives like Tonsley in South Australia as a good example, with partnerships between Flinders University, TAFE, and companies from the energy sector.
In Western Australia, NERA is involved with new developments at another TAFE training facility, the Australian Centre for Energy and Process Training (ACEPT).
“It’s very industry driven, with an industry board. It’s got a liquification tower. It’s got a training facility that simulates real environment. We’re hoping to work with UWA and Curtin and about five other companies, looking at a micro gas plant near the training centre,” says Ms Taylor.
“It would be a research facility that would have a test lab in it with open process control technology, so small companies can come up and plug their technologies in and do some prototyping and testing,” she says.
Such a ‘living lab’ could help small companies show off great new innovations, and help industry partner with research to test sensor, AI and machine learning technologies to see how valuable they could be in the field.
And all while TAFE is training people to work with these new technologies as part of their industry training.
“We are in a permanent era of uncertainty now. Everything we do has really got to be scenario-based. We have to have one foot in today with a very firm gaze into the future.”
Staying the course
NERA has plenty of positive stories to tell about how it has found its place in the energy resources sector, and publishes case studies and articles about successful partnership through its website and in its own publications like the recent ‘Creating Our New Energy Futures’ to show off great innovations and projects across the sector.
But one area that Ms Taylor worries about is the potential for government to shift focus and move away from the ten year plan the Industry Growth Centres are based upon.
“Don’t run growth centres like a program. Put it together and call it ‘Australia’s Industry Strategy’ and stick to it for the ten year horizon you said you were going to do. You can’t keep drip funding,” says Ms Taylor.