Innovative technologies are transforming the way city gas distribution (CGD) companies do business. In light of this trend, digitalisation is emerging as a niche area and CGD companies are increasingly adopting smart solutions, which will hold immense potential in the time to come. While smart meters are important for the accurate measurement of gas consumption, it is even more important to analyse the data collected using dashboards, analytical tools and innovative software. There are several reliable technologies available for transmitting data from smart meters – RF walk-by/drive, RF LoRa WAN P2P, RF mesh, NBIoT, etc. Telemetry devices can be used to ensure the transmission of data reliably, quickly and cost effectively while ensuring operational efficiency.

Need for technology solutions

Several challenges in the CGD sector could be resolved with the help of technology solutions. Some of the upcoming technologies in the sector are analytics-based tools for better demand estimations and gas reconciliation, geo-tagging tools for better visibility of assets, centralised monitoring tools for network pressure operations and leak identification, real-time data-driven analytics tools for optimising the CNG transport vehicle network, smart metering technologies, supervisory control and data acquisition and enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems for creating smart data-driven maintenance, and mobile applications for easing customer billing and query management.

In the next 10 years, CGD infrastructure could see a major shift towards smart gas grids, with data-enabled end-to-end operations and decision-making. The future gas grids will be self-healing networks with superior network control, integrated multi-geographical area operations modules, real-time grid communications, predictive demand forecasting and automation. The shift from physical processes to automated or digitalised ones has been catalysed by the recent virus outbreak.

Digital technologies

The downward pressure on commodity prices continues to be a significant issue, and a post-Covid decline in demand has made the situation worse. To be successful despite the current market conditions, oil and gas companies need to adopt digital technology. Major exploration and production companies in the oil and gas sector are increasing their exposure to digital technology to sustain operations during Covid-19. The adoption of the digital route has become important for undertaking operations and maintenance and maintaining liquidity.

GAIL is in the process of implementing a 5,000 km long pipeline, with every 200 km being monitored individually by digital technology. The company is also interacting with other PSUs for keeping itself abreast of the other areas of digitalisation. Besides, Cairn Oil and Gas is using technologies such as machine learning, artificial intelligence and cloud computing in business operations. Data-driven technology is being used for reservoir management. Predictive analysis is also being implemented to reduce the downtime of equipment while all the oilfields are being connected digitally to monitor the performance of wells. Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) has deployed neural networks for getting data related to the reservoirs. Using digital solutions has helped ONGC maintain production at near-normal levels.

Interestingly, the Covid-19 environment and resulting work-from-home policies have the potential to expedite some of the change necessary to support the full integration of digital technology across an organisation. Digital technology supports social distancing, allowing employees to work efficiently from remote locations, which will likely be a necessity throughout 2020 and beyond. Digital tools do more than enable communication and collaboration. They allow engineers and operators to plan and monitor operations remotely, automate manual tasks, streamline processes, and support operational integrity and process safety. Cloud computing, advanced analytics, remote monitoring, mobile apps, etc. are some of the technologies currently in use within oil and gas companies.

IT-OT convergence

In recent years, the oil and gas industry has adopted advanced machinery aimed at increasing yields. It also has been using information technology (IT) applications for managing and organising data being generated from the front-end operations. For the oil and gas industry, effective IT-OT convergence can yield noteworthy results such as enhanced extraction efficiency, predictive maintenance of equipment, real-time asset monitoring and tracking, as well as optimal use of the workforce. Companies such as ONGC and OIL are taking steps in this direction.

While various entities across the upstream and downstream segments are taking steps to adopt IT- and OT-backed solutions in their business processes, the integration of the two sets of solutions is a must to achieve comprehensive efficiency gains. There are several factors that have prompted automation in the industry. Some of these are changing customer experiences, practices and expectations, rapid advances in technology, disruption in demand-supply, and high commodity prices.

The industry acknowledges that the application of new-age technologies, such as artificial intelligence, internet of things and big data analytics, leads to faster and more accurate operational decision-making. The adoption of advanced IT applications is set to play a key role in bridging the gap between upstream, midstream and downstream processes in the oil and gas industry using historical data analysis in real time.

Smart metering

Over the years, with technological advancements, various metering solutions have emerged and significantly changed the way the CGD business is being conducted in the country. A number of CGD players have adopted smart metering solutions to increase their competence and serve customers better. An emerging metering trend in the CGD sector is smart prepaid gas meters. These meters not only measure the gas consumption (through gas flow), but also use wireless communication to connect to a local or wide area network that enables infrastructure maintenance, remote location monitoring, and automatic billing by the CGD company. Besides, these meters have a valve to stop the gas flow when the credit in the prepaid account reduces below a certain level.

A rapid increase in the number of new connections has simultaneously increased the need for field workforce, tracking transmission losses and transferring the benefits to customers. In light of the challenges faced in the door-to-door collection of meter readings and spot/self-billing, smart meters have emerged as an unparalleled long-term solution to support the long-term growth of the CGD sector. In this regard, a greater emphasis is being laid on the deployment of smart solutions. Although there are several innovative smart metering solutions, they are marred by a number of issues. Automated meter reading (AMR) solutions offer numerous benefits to CGD operators such as enabling rapid deployment, providing insights through the dashboard, ensuring better reconciliation between distribution points/loss tracking, guaranteeing end-to-end data security, and promoting energy conservation.

Indraprastha Gas Limited (IGL) has successfully deployed prepaid smart meters supplied by Genesis Gas Solutions in partnership with Tata Communications’ LoRaWAN Internet of Things (IoT) network. IGL has become the first company in the country to deploy this technology. These smart meters have enabled the customers to monitor their gas use accurately on a real-time basis. As a result, IGL has eliminated human errors in manual meter reading, thereby optimising its capacity planning and boosting operational efficiency.

However, a number of challenges still remain in the sector. Smart gas metering is quite different from smart electricity metering. While electricity meters are easily powered through the main line and can rely on an existing electric network, smart gas meters need to rely on battery-powered and wireless infrastructure as they are prone to gas-related accident risks. In addition, there are issues pertaining to the shortage of skilled manpower. Besides, there are few domestic vendors available for smart meters, limiting the scale of adoption.

In sum

Bringing together numerous applications and creating a unified data stream could have a significant impact across the industry. Effectively integrating and deploying digital technology across the oil and gas sector has the potential to reduce costs and drive efficiencies, both critical for navigating the immediate effects of the Covid-19 crisis and the long-term implications of energy transition.