Refineries Focusing on Safety, Automation

The Rapid Pace of Change in Hydrocarbon Processing Demands Quick Response from Both Vendors and Users

By Nancy Bartels

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There's good news and bad news for American hydrocarbon processors. That's a key message from the Hydrocarbon Processing Industries Workshop at the Foxboro/Triconex '13 Global Client Conference, being held Sept 9-13 at the San Antonio Marriott Rivercenter in San Antonio, Texas.  

The workshop began with an outline of some of the factors reshaping and challenging the industry given by Dr. Martin Turk, Director, Industry Solutions, Hydrocarbon Processing Industry for Invensys. He says the industry is being reshaped by a number of factors, including a growing need for energy security, slowing demand growth in developing countries and falling demand in developed ones, over-capacity, the growth of non-fossil-fuel sources and renewable energy, the politics of climate change and stricter environmental regulations.

At the same time, the industry is being buffeted by other economic forces: the slow pace of economic recovery and the European debt crisis; increasing pressure to reduce greenhouse gas and sulfur emissions; the growth in demand for diesel fuels; the low cost of hydrocarbons produced from shale, which changes the competitive landscape. Then there are the facts that most of the growth in demand is coming from developing countries and that the new market bellweather countries are the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India and China) and that in producers in the developed countries are hampered by aging plant assets.    

In the face of these forces, says Turk, American downstream producers are taking a cautious approach to capital spending. They are focusing on ensuring process reliability and safety and using longer run times between turnarounds. He says that we will be seeing more enterprise-wide initiatives to improve operator knowledge and training, the use of more KPI dashboard systems to more closely monitor production optimization, a bigger investment in cybersecurity and in process and equipment condition monitoring and automated workflow systems. Companies are also investing in safety and console systems to display actionable operations and economic indicators related to real-time risk and operator guidance tools that use data analysis to identify impending process and safety problems.

At that point, Dr. Stephen Russell, Executive Director of Automation at Valero Energy Corp., took over to explain how his company has engaged in a years' long process to address all these issues. The initiative is called Visions in Excellence. The goal of the program, says Russell, is to go from being "the biggest to the best American refiner."

This initiative emphasizes process safety and automation. "We want a safe, environmentally sound workplace, and [this program] is how we get the vision into practice," says Russell.

One of the pieces of good news for American refiners in this shifting industry says Russell is that cheap crude oil has turned the United States—for the moment at least—into a net exporter. "We have a structural advantage right now. Our goal at Valero is to get product to market as fast as we can. We're increasing distillate yields. We have completed two hydrocracker projects in 2012-13, and there are more in the works. Plus, recent acquisitions have increased distillate yields."
 
Automation is a key focus of Valero's strategy. "Reliable control systems, safety systems and alarm management are essential," says Russell. "Instrumentation and software produce information about optimization and efficiency. Automation is a key element in knowledge capture."

Advanced process control and real-time optimization are also crucial. Russell says that since 2008 Valero has done over 100 advanced process control projects. It has also emphasized blending optimization using APC. "APC blend optimization uses online measurement of product properties. We've done these successfully at two refineries and have projects underway at four more. These directly hit the bottom line."

But Valero hasn't stopped there. It has developed a corporate standard alarm philosophy. It is driving system standardization where it makes business sense and balancing centralized and site-based staff. Plus, the company is building stronger relationships with strategic partners. "This combination is getting significant improvements for us," says Russell.

He adds that he has some high expectations of those suppliers. "Technology must be simple and transparent. Technology is not a core competency in refining. We need suppliers to focus on applications that can deliver value. Project execution speed and efficiency have to be increased. We need reduced costs. Software design and configuration must be divorced from hardware. We need less marshalling and more standardized cabinets."


Finally, Russell would like to see more emphasis on the operator, whom he sees as the central figure in the refinery of the future, and both vendors and users need to help the operator embrace that transition. "The role and expectations of the operator is the most important and challenging aspect of designing the refinery of the future. We have to free the operator from the DCS console."

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