Following the abundance of domestic cheap natural gas from the shale gas revolution, numerous Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) export terminals in the U.S. were proposed. In the next two years we will see these Natural Gas Liquids (NGL) production and liquefaction plants planned during the shale revolution coming online. Unfortunately for these new LNG producers, the U.S. no longer enjoys the impressive price advantage over the global competition as it did when these plants were proposed. The drop in crude oil prices has narrowed the gap between international natural gas prices tied to the price of oil and the U.S.-based pricing structure based on Henry Hub natural gas prices. Competition from the new LNG export capacity in Australia (a preferred LNG supplier to nearby Asia) and Canada is also driving the LNG supply glut that is affecting prices.
What’s a new plant to do? Most plant operators will look at cutting the training budget and other overhead expenditures to try to increase their margin. However, cutting plant operator training can be detrimental to your efficiency. If there’s one thing we all know in the process industry, it’s that efficiency equals higher margins and inefficiency spells upsets, abnormal situations and costly downtime.
How training can protect your investment
While the price of natural gas is sure to provide a lower return than initially hoped for, proper training can prepare your operators and engineering staff to operate the plant to its fullest capacity and as efficiently as possible.
Oftentimes, the import terminals constructed in waves in the 1970s and mid-to-late 2000s are being converted to export terminals. At these locations, the staff need to be retrained on the new process of producing NGL and exporting LNG as opposed to importing LNG. Considering that these plants are new to the LNG export business, it is likely that your operators and engineers are unfamiliar with the processes. Beyond instruction on how to operate the plant in normal operating conditions, your staff needs to have a thorough background knowledge of the process and equipment.
Proper plant operator training programs can take an entry level employee, or an employee with no prior knowledge of the process, through to an expert level who can validate changes on a plant specific operator training simulator (OTS) before actual implementation.
Fundamentals for a strong technical foundation
Self-paced, interactive LNG liquefaction and NGL production tutorials help trainees grasp the application and function of process units, the associated equipment, and how it is operated and controlled. This strong technical foundation helps operators, engineers and maintenance personnel learn not only how the plant works, but why it works the way it does. This crucial knowledge of the process will help your staff take action more confidently during events and abnormal situations.
Hands-on training for infrequent operations
“Learning by Doing” is the most successful training method for knowledge retention. While a plant might not startup or shutdown frequently, operators need to be well-versed in taking the plant offline for maintenance and operational tweaking and then starting back up and ramping up to full production as quickly as possible. These periods of downtime are what separate a successful NGL processing plant from an unsuccessful one. Plants need to maximize their uptime to improve LNG margins and proper training of staff on LNG liquefaction and NGL production. Universal simulators can give them hands-on training by allowing operators to experience and react to an event which in turn will ensure that when these infrequent operations or abnormal events happen in the real plant, they’ll be ready to handle them quickly and efficiently, and with minimal downtime.
Plant-specific operating procedures training
Once your plant operators and engineers have a strong technical foundation in the fundamentals and equipment and have practiced infrequent operations in a universal simulator, they are ready to continue challenging their skills in a custom plant operator training simulator (OTS). Many process plants utilize an OTS for plant operator training because it allows for training on exact equipment and processes. There is no better way to train, other than on the job on actual equipment which can be highly dangerous, expensive to replace or repair damaged equipment, and infrequent in opportunity.
Beyond plant operator training, a custom OTS provides an environment for engineers to test design modifications effects prior to implementation. This virtual commissioning of the distributed control system (DCS) and modifications can save in costly downtime by discovering instrumentation and control (I&C) errors before they can cause any trouble.
Some forward-thinking Engineering Procurement Companies (EPCs) are even commissioning the OTS at the beginning of their plant design projects to use as virtual commissioning tools to test plant design and the DCS. It may be too late for the current phase of LNG liquefaction and NGL production plants coming online to take full advantage of an early stage OTS, but the “2nd wave” of proposed LNG export projects should consider that the further upfront in the process that an OTS is commissioned, the more time and money is saved during plant design, commissioning and training prior to startup.
While the U.S. LNG export industry isn’t experiencing the soaring profit margins expected from the outset, these plants can squeeze increased efficiency out of their assets with proper end-to-end workforce training.
Laying a strong technical foundation for plant operators in the U.S. new LNG export industry is vitally important for building the confidence of your staff so that they understand the “why” behind the process. Training on universal simulators to practice abnormal and infrequent operations will keep you up and running at full production more often and more quickly. Finally, utilizing a custom OTS for training on plant specific procedures and virtually commissioning changes can put you ahead of the competition in terms of uptime and efficiency.
When your LNG export industry peers are cutting their training budgets in the wake of low natural gas prices your investment in proper end-to-end workforce training may be what sets you apart from the competition.