Optimal Choice between Steam Turbines and Electric Motors in Oil and Gas Downstream
Nov 08, 2017
Francesco Falco & Alberto Matucci

The oil and gas industry is in the midst of a transformation. Companies around the world have clamped down on costs and are exploring new ways to improve efficiency. In the downstream segment of the oil and gas industry—refineries, petrochemical and fertilizer plants—compressor trains are an important area for achieving potential process optimization. Depending on the individual requirements of the specific operation and the physical environment within which the compressor train will be located, the most efficient, effective and appropriate technology package can vary. Both steam turbines and electric motors offer valuable solutions, but to determine which of the two is the optimum choice, several factors must be thoroughly examined and evaluated.

With the downstream segment encompassing a wide array of processes, operators in this space are often challenged by the scale and variety of applied technologies. The availability of the equipment is enormously important as delivery delays or longer equipment outage periods—even amounting to just a few days—can result in damaging losses for any customer.

Various compression applications, such as fertilizers, ethylene, GTL (gas to liquids) or CTL (coal to liquids) are an integral part of the processes that develop heat and need to be cooled, while the generated steam can be used to exploit the full efficiency of the total system. Additionally, plants or add-ons built in areas where the power grid is unstable or where there are under-sized transmission lines to connect to the local grid will benefit from the use of steam turbines that guarantee continued operations during electrical power supply interruptions.

For processes that don’t develop heat or only partially generate steam, like recycled hydrogen, feed gas and in some instances, wet gas applications or plants located in areas where the power grid is stable, the use of electric motors can represent a better choice. 

The recent advancement of electrification has made it possible and practical for electric motors and drive systems to be an option for powering standalone machines up to 100 megawatts (MW) and integrated ones up to 35 MW. With more than 150 GE high-speed systems installed globally with 4,500,000 accumulated operation hours, electric motors and drives have demonstrated reliable operation for such applications, even to customers keen on steam usage.

As global emissions standards become tougher, electrification is increasingly being viewed as a promising solution to contribute to a decarbonized energy future. A smaller footprint and less necessary auxiliaries make it possible to preserve the plant layout in more constrained environments and allow a smooth plant integration, resulting in savings for the associated infrastructure cost.

Electric motors, especially induction motors, are known for their simple design and thus less maintenance is required. Moreover, the obsolescence of existing boilers and limited capability within operations and maintenance departments form a higher risk compared to electrical component availability and drive the depletion curve.

On the other hand, the obsolescence or derating of operational parameters of electrical components happens faster than steam hardware (on VSDS) and requires substitution, while steam turbine depletion mainly remains flat for more than 20 years (with proper devices and maintenance).

The oil and gas industry has a long history and expertise around mechanical engineering. In its efforts to transform its energy fortunes, the sector should embrace new possibilities that make business sense. At GE, we offer various electric-driven compressor solutions as well as the latest steam turbine technologies, developed to meet the challenging requirements of each customer project.

Since 1985, coupled with industrial expertise from other GE businesses, we are the industry pioneers and experts in providing the entire integrated system solution, helping de-risk projects, reduce project complexity and maximize returns for our customers.

More than ever, it is critical for oil and gas project owners and operators to adopt innovative and robust technology solutions to navigate through the downturn and beyond, but having the right partner is as important as the right technology. Based on our 125 years of experience in the oil and gas industry and in electrification, we offer more than just equipment, but also a consulting service. Our experts will help customers make more informed decisions that continue to deliver results across the entire project life cycle. We perform feasibility studies and closely estimate project costs from the outset, helping customers secure the initial investment. Our system design and performance analysis capabilities further help to ensure our customers’ long-term success.

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Francesco Falco & Alberto Matucci

Francesco Falco (left) is the Global Sales Leader for GE’s Power Conversion business and CEO, PC Italy. Francesco started with GE Oil & Gas 18 years ago as Six Sigma Master Black Belt. His career progressed through various leadership roles of increased global responsibility with multiple international assignments across GE O&G and GE's Power Conversion business.

Alberto Matucci (right)  is the Vice President of Refinery & Petrochemical, BHGE, based in Florence, Italy.  He is a GE Company veteran, with 20 years of experience in the oil & gas industry, yet global and contemporary, with demonstrated versatility and broad skill set.