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.
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.
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.