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Integrated Operations Centre - delivering safe and reliable outcomes for Australia’s gas pipeline network

APA Group’s Integrated Operations Centre has significantly improved Australia’s gas transmission operations, enabling participants to access greater operating flexibility to address and manage planned and unplanned supply disruption.

Australia’s gas pipeline network

In 2013, the APA Group (APA) embarked on an ambitious project to align the control and operations of transmission pipeline assets across five Australian states into a single national Integrated Operations Centre (IOC) in Brisbane. The IOC was inaugurated in 2014 and has controlled APA’s national pipeline asset portfolio since mid-2015.

This article discusses APA’s challenges and successes in executing such a major change programme during a period of intense business and industry change, and outlines the key learnings; careful management of change in transitioning the organisation’s people, systems and processes was required.

The evolution of APA’s pipeline asset portfolio

The evolution of Australian gas transmission dates back to 1969 with the construction of the first high-pressure gas pipeline traversing 440km from Roma to Brisbane1. Today, this asset is part of a portfolio of approximately 15,000 kilometres of high-pressure pipelines managed by the IOC2.

Until recently, APA’s transmission pipeline operations were underpinned by unidirectional flows supported by long-term contracts between producers and end customers. Prior to 2015, the east coast gas market largely supported domestic and industrial loads from conventional gas producers in Moomba and Bass Straight. This changed due to the large-scale development of unconventional coal seam gas production in Queensland, which now supplies the burgeoning LNG international export market.

APA responded to the changing commercial landscape by evolving their transmission portfolio from a series of point-to-point pipeline operations to an interconnected East Coast Grid that sought to unlock the market potential for shippers and end users. Change led to increased complexity through the introduction of bi-directional flows on meshed pipeline networks which now enable exchange of molecules, both intra and inter-state, and overseas via LNG exports.

APA’s East Coast Grid makes natural gas from Bass Strait available to customers in Sydney and industrial users in south-east Queensland.

IOC establishment

As part of the East Coast Grid development strategy, APA adapted learnings taken from a variety of industries to focus on real-time operational decision-making within a 72 hour window.

While geographically challenged, the IOC brings together functions beyond the mandate of a traditional control centre, incorporating back office support functions. Integrating these functions has provided greater agility in adapting to changes in customer demands which are increasingly driven by short-term flexible gas contracts.

Establishment challenges

The establishment required careful management of change in transitioning the organisation’s people, systems and processes. Building a single workforce in Brisbane meant relocating and upskilling a small number of dispersed state-based control and commercial employees and supplementing the workforce with local hire of almost 60% new staff.

Having evolved as a group of state-based business units, APA recognised that its growing scale, complexity and geography challenged earlier state-based operations and maintenance processes. As a result, the business standardised and aligned business-as-usual processes for journey management and field response, along with enhanced emergency response and incident management processes in parallel with the IOC establishment.

Merging five control centres into one challenged the existing SCADA system architecture. In establishing the IOC, SCADA products were standardised onto a single vendor platform. As a “brownfield” SCADA project, operators new to APA had to learn multiple vendor systems while the state-based SCADA systems were cutover to the new standard.

Merging five control centres into one challenged the existing SCADA system architecture.

Operating challenges

Early operation of the IOC highlighted the need for a deeper review of support resources. This was to best leverage the expertise of the new team in managing daily commercial and control operations.

During the project, the East Coast Grid underwent immense growth in terms of complexity and scale. Bi-directionality of some the mainstay assets meant new control room operators were extremely busy building local asset knowledge and capability to keep pace with change.

The commissioning of the first LNG trains at Gladstone in 2014 coincided with the first three months of IOC operations. During this time, the team learnt quickly about the large LNG production swings and the need for pioneering new ways of exploiting pipeline storage capacity. Moreover, a structured approach to operator competency assurance was undertaken to re-baseline operator competencies to include grid and market awareness. Further, an enhancement of national site operating manuals was undertaken to better reflect the 'grid' dependencies between pipelines, verify technical operating envelopes and validate typical scenarios for management of normal and abnormal system conditions.

A safety assessment across the IOC ways-of-working was completed during early operations to establish confidence and compliance in the application of control room processes. Process safety fundamentals were revisited and the principles embedded into daily transactions to bring to front-of-mind the risks associated with remote controlled hydrocarbon operations. Operator alarm levels became extreme in some cases, as state based SCADA systems were commissioned onto the new IOC single vendor platform. Additional engineering resources were deployed to supplement controller actions to manage alarm risk and during peak periods.

Early operations highlighted the need for improved planning tools and governance around management of planned outages impacting transmission capacity. Initial learnings seeded the scope for the enhancement of APA’s Enterprise Asset Management and Integrated Activity Planning systems.

Finding a 'rhythm' for daily operations was challenging as teams forged new ways of working. The expanded operating function in the IOC meant that staff needed to adapt traditional commercial and operational skills, knowledge and mindset from a pure point-to-point asset operation towards a national integrated grid operating model.

Early operations highlighted the need for improved planning tools and governance around management of planned outages impacting transmission capacity.

Case Study 1: South Australia Electricity Black System Event

On 28 September 2016, extreme weather conditions led to the collapse of the South Australia (SA) Electricity grid and the suspension of the electricity market until 11 October4. This 'Black System'4 event demonstrated the increasing reliance on gas fired power generation and renewable energy sources.

The IOC monitored electricity and gas price and demand indicators as the power outages unfolded and examined a range of gas transmission scenarios influenced by gas shippers. The IOC led a cross-functional review of gas supply risks at key gas delivery points and developed risk mitigation plans for key pipeline routes to assure delivery into Victoria and SA. Where necessary, non-safety critical works were deferred and system restoration plans for plant isolations and pressure reduction works were reviewed.

Of the gas grid risks examined, a potential loss of Victorian gas production was considered the most significant market exposure. On 1 October this concern was realised, with an unplanned shutdown of the Esso-operated Longford Gas Production Facility4. As a consequence, the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) restricted wind generators and started allocating gas supplies to SA to fuel higher output from gas-fired power stations. Consequently, part of Victoria’s gas supply from the South East Australia gas pipeline was diverted to SA increasing Victoria’s demand on all other sources3.

On 1 October, APA experienced an unplanned outage at their Culcairn Compressor station, which forms the key interconnection point between the Victorian Transmission System and the East Coast Grid.

APA’s response to these events demonstrates the range of functions and benefits of the IOC. Holding a central function for market surveillance, contingency planning and enabling capability to manage both business as usual gas deliveries, market incidents and unplanned interruptions at multiple levels is essential to the security of Australia’s national gas supply.

Case Study 2: Flexible gas storage enabling LNG production

Initial LNG production from CSG developed in south west Queensland signified the evolution of the East Coast Grid. Early learnings in CSG production showed that turn down or shut-in of CSG wells could permanently damage the well stock, representing costly rig work-overs in order to re-establish production. APA’s expansion of the gas grid has enabled flexibility to absorb LNG production swings through utilising available pipeline storage capacity to accommodate surplus gas, while shippers and downstream customers address production upsets.

During late 2015, the IOC received a client request for a gas loan of 50 TJ/day up to their contractual limit of 200 TJ to support gas for commissioning of an LNG train. Under the commercial agreement, the client would repay the loan of 200 TJ as well as park an additional quantity of gas, up to 500 TJ.

In response, the IOC modelled scenarios to establish how gas could be allocated across the East Coast Grid in the event of an unplanned LNG shutdown. On the day of commissioning the IOC operationalised the plan, monitoring physical grid limitations and operating conditions and maintaining line of sight on the operational conditions within the 72 hour operating window.

The results demonstrated that through assessment, planning and execution of the client’s requests, they could loan additional gas to support their LNG commissioning work at Gladstone and reimburse gas to APA’s grid storage when complete. By storing up to 500TJ of the client’s gas on the grid during LNG shutdowns, the client’s production risks were managed, enabling them to meet production targets and maintain shareholder value.

Key Learnings

The IOC was established through a formal business change project, executed to a fixed budget and timeframe. The “brownfield” nature of transitioning five operating control rooms into a single integrated operating group entailed a range of people, process and systems lessons. These included:

Key Learnings Key Learnings

People – Project workforce plans were ambitious and had assumed a reduction in headcount. Early on, it became clear that the rapid growth rate and complexity of the East Coast Grid had increased the demand on the team’s capacity and capability. In addition, approved headcount had assumed that staff in both the commercial and control functions would be competent across multiple geographic assets and market regions. In the first year of operations, the headcount was revised to accommodate asset growth and free up staff for competency development.

Through the integration of former state operations centre teams into the Brisbane IOC, staff attrition was greater than expected. This resulted in a need to hire almost 60% new staff. While new team members brought diverse skills, the need to standardise core knowledge around pipeline and grid operation was underestimated. A subsequent operating risk and capability review further highlighted that process safety and site-specific knowledge on each pipeline needed strengthening and alignment to task requirements. Additionally, it was discovered that training resources needed to be enhanced and contextualised.

Processes – Integration of operational control, commercial and engineering functions into a single centre meant that many long-standing local relationships were lost. Learnings showed that greater visibility of work schedules and plans would be imperative for the IOC to successfully navigate grid outages and manage market constraints. This need is being addressed in the implementation of a national integrated activity planning process.
Emergency response and incident management processes were standardised to align a single way of working across the field-IOC interface. Early adoption of the processes has been positive with incidents such as those cited above, demonstrating the value of a centralised operations team to enact assessment of incident risk and direct ‘grid’ response requirements.

Systems – During the early operation of the new national SCADA, system operators learned that the human machine interface display screens required greater consistency and repurposing to layer information now aggregated across five workstations and six states. Operator user requirements for SCADA standardisation were specified and a staged upgrade project initiated. Learnings around management of alarm flooding and the need for standardising alarm nomenclature and priorities were incorporated into a business-wide alarm philosophy and alarm upgrade project.

Additional lessons from the roll out of a national In Vehicle Monitoring System (IVMS) were also captured as control room workload was challenged during the commissioning process with high volumes of false IVMS alarms while the system was tuned and former state-based vehicle monitoring procedures were aligned to a national standard.

Conclusion

The evolution of the East Coast Grid has incentivised a paradigm shift in gas transmission operations where participants can access greater operating flexibility to address and manage planned and unplanned supply disruptions, by taking advantage of pipeline capacity enabled by the functions of a national IOC.

The evolution of the CSG to LNG market, pipeline bi-directionality, short-term trading contracts and competing demand between export and domestic gas supply have given rise to significant investment in the East Coast Grid and increased complexities in pipeline operations. Such complexities have shaped the development of APA’s IOC.

Evolving complexity of the gas-grid and the integration of a new national team highlighted the need to establish baseline IOC competencies to support grid operation with nationally standardised processes. Building operator capability in the IOC has demanded competency development beyond the traditional scope of a point-to-point pipeline operator, with contemporary competency requirements seeking greater “grid” awareness and a demonstrated technical, process safety, operational and commercial acumen.

Finally, trends in remote control centre evolution demonstrate many industry sectors leveraging value from an IOC approach. The value of an IOC in the hydrocarbons industry is shown to benefit not only the value creation in gas supply chain, but moreover provides a unique opportunity to respond to unplanned incidents and emergencies thereby contributing to active management of Australia’s national gas supply security.

Authors

Jamie Gabb, Manager National Integrated Operations Centre, APA Group

Kai Eberspaecher, Senior Associate, Advisian

References

  1. APGA Website - Facts and figures about pipelines and gas https://www.apga.org.au/industry/facts-and-figures-about-pipelines-and-gas/

  2. APA Website – About APA, https://www.apa.com.au/about-apa/apa-overview/

  3. Australian Energy Regulator (AER) “Significant Price Variation Report – Victorian wholesale market – Longford facility outage 1 October 2016”, Version 1, 21 December 2016, pp.17

  4. AEMO, Integrated Final Report Black System South Australia 28 September 2016, 23 March 2017, pp.4-5

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