Energy transition

Keeping the Lights On: UK Regulators Meet With North Sea Producers on Brownfield Electrification

The North Sea Transition Authority has previously said failure to invest in platform electrification could threaten future production rights.

Silhouette of an Offshore Supply Vessel alongside oil platform Ringhorn in the North Sea
Source: Arild Lilleboe/Getty Images

UK regulators met recently in Aberdeen with oil and gas producers and technology suppliers to discuss strategies to enhance the electrification of the nation’s offshore platforms.

Power generation accounted for almost 80% of UK offshore oil and gas emissions in 2022—or about 2 mtpa. On the whole, the upstream industry represents a 3% share of all UK greenhouse gas emissions, according to the North Sea Transition Authority (NSTA).

The authority has previously voiced concerns that the domestic industry must intensify its efforts to achieve the government's goal of halving emissions from oil and gas production by 2030.

“Platform electrification is a key step on the road to net zero. The North Sea has long been a testbed for pioneering technologies and right now we need innovative solutions to crack the significant challenge of electrification, cut emissions, and accelerate the transition,” Bill Cattanach, the head of supply chain for NSTA, said in a statement.

A group of 11 operators participated in the NSTA workshop with presentations outlining the significant engineering hurdles they face in retrofitting older platforms especially to run on either onshore grid or offshore wind power.

Major oil and gas companies such as BP, CNOOC, Equinor, Shell, and TotalEnergies were in attendance, alongside technology developers like ABB, Aker Solutions, Siemens Energy, and Hitachi Energy.

Some of the operators are trying to make progress and have in the last few years announced a number of projects.

Included among them are China’s state-owned CNOOC which plans to power its 70-MW Buzzard platform in the central North Sea using an offshore wind farm of up to 30 floating turbines.

TotalEnergies, Shell, and BP are leading a separate electrification project that could supply power to four large offshore hubs. Other projects are at various stages in West of Shetland.

Despite a consistent reduction in total emissions by the UK industry since 2020 and a nearly 50% reduction in flaring over the past 4 years, the NSTA has stressed the urgent need for action. Last year, it warned all UK North Sea operators that future production rights might be contingent on their commitment to field electrification.

This comes as the NSTA considers new rules that would require all new offshore developments brought online after January 2030 to be fully electrified. Following a public consultation period, the NSTA said it would issue a follow-up response on the proposed rules later this year.

Should these rules be implemented as proposed, they would mandate operators of existing fields to evaluate their electrification options.

Where the NSTA deems it reasonable to invest in electrification, as decided by the value of a project’s remaining reserves, operators will be required to follow through or the regulator may withhold future production consents.

The task of electrifying a substantial number of existing fields has been underscored as a significant challenge.

Wood Mackenzie presented analysis at last year’s SPE Offshore Europe conference suggesting that with 80% of UK North Sea resources already extracted there is likely less than 600 million BOE remaining—leaving little to no economic case for electrification projects at many sites.

Additionally, a report from Offshore Energies UK (OEUK) predicted that up to 180 of the nearly 280 offshore platforms in the UK North Sea will cease production by the end of the decade due to natural declines. The trade group’s study further noted that 20 fields ceased production last year, while only two new fields were brought online.