By Gregory Hale
Ethylene production is a highly hazardous environment, where the process works under very high pressures, very high temperatures, and fast thermal reactions.

Everyone in the industry has done a good job of making ethylene crackers safe and efficient where it is possible to reuse the steam to help drive power generation. But the next move, and it will be sooner than you think, is electrification will start to take over to fire up the furnaces and fossil fuels become obsolete.

As more and more of the process becomes electrified, it could reduce CO2 emissions by 90 percent, which is the key to a sustainable future. Instead of burning coal and other fossil fuels, the energy transition is moving toward electrification, which not only helps achieve a sustainable environment, but it also changes the safety dynamic. Just as process installations carry hazardous substances, electrical currents and high voltages can also be potentially harmful.

“Now, that doesn’t mean the process safety management of that furnace changes because you’re still boiling, you’re still heating, you’ve still got lots of nasty things going on in there,” said Steve Elliott, Senior Offer Director – Safety and Critical Control at Schneider Electric. “It just means that you’re using electrification to drive sustainability gains. The safety dynamics will change, and electrification is going to become more of a primary driver and concern on those processes that drive some of the sustainability gains.”

Furthermore, as electrification will be more essential for continuous, safe operations, power and process safety management become even more tightly coupled.

Conduct eHAZOP
With all of that in mind, electrification needs to be a part of the risk assessments so as well as conducting a HAZOP (Hazard and Operability study), safety experts need to also look at electric risks and conduct an eHAZOP (electrical Hazard and Operability study).

With a boost in electrical usage, one example might be where cables could potentially overheat and lead to an electrical shut down, or an arc flash. This then has a direct consequence on the process side, so you have now extended the scope to include electrical hazards as equipment become more electro-intensive.

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As we need more energy, renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, tidal all have a part to play. But the intermittent nature of these sources makes them challenging in heavy process industries that are energy hungry and need constant feeding 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That is one reason why hydrogen becomes such an attractive proposition.

However, like any fuel, hydrogen can be hazardous under the right conditions.

The use of hydrogen isn’t new and is already used in the petrochemical, refining and chemical sectors. So, the good news is industry experts already have experience of managing hydrogen hazards and risks.

Hydrogen Production on Rise
But what is new is using hydrogen in industrial scale production, transportation, storage, and consumption. Hydrogen production is accelerating, from low megawatts now to gigawatts by 2030. A case in point is the world’s largest green hydrogen project will be built in Egypt this year and will have a 100 MW electrolyzer. An electrolyzer is a system that uses electricity to break water into hydrogen and oxygen in a process called electrolysis. Through electrolysis, the electrolyzer system creates hydrogen gas. As electrolyzers involve very high electrical demands, combined power and process safety management systems become more important.

From coal, oil and natural gas to hydrogen, the landscape for the types of energy employed may be changing, as will the way safety professionals look, act and perform in that new dynamic.

“When it comes to safety, people don’t change for the sake of it, it’s either because they have to, or something’s broken, regulations have changed, compliance with audits, regulator observations, or whatever else,” Elliott said. “It could be because there’s a corporate mandate that comes down. It could be because there’s an opportunity to gain some form of competitive advantage in their in their space.”

“What was once looking at flame scanners, ignition sources, burning combustibles, we’re not going to do that,” Elliott said. “We’re now going to have the biggest kettle known to man with the electrical element and that provides the heat for the steam, for the furnace, and for the production process.”

Electrification will be driving the energy transition for sustainability gains. Yes, renewables will help, but the increased production of hydrogen will be the new energy model moving forward.

Can’t Afford Process Safety Incidents
“We’re right at the beginning of this new model. But whatever happens, we cannot afford a safety incident or incidents that could potentially disrupt, derail or disrupt that new hydrogen growth and area,” Elliott said.

“I think safety is more important to the growth areas because of the potential consequence,” Elliott said. “People are building businesses; they are building industries around it. Now the good news is we’ve been using hydrogen for a long time. We understand its properties, we understand what we’re not necessarily using it in the same way. Hydrogen can be hazardous under the right conditions.

“We’re starting to see this acceptance of hydrogen and hydrogen safety growing. I’ve always been involved in oil and gas, and we’ve always been part of a very long journey in terms of safety for that. Hydrogen I think is accelerating at a much faster pace and I don’t think the true acknowledgement of the safety aspects and domains are completely understood yet,” he said.

When you talk about understanding the safety aspects, that is when standards come in to play.

“Hydrogen is used already so the current standards do cover the use of and production of hydrogen, but I think what we’ll see is a separate standard coming out like you have for burners and boilers. It will be based on safety standards, but it will have its own individual standard and I think that’s what’s going to happen,” said Neil Crowe, Commercial Offer Manager for Process Safety at Schneider Electric.

With the potential for a growing hydrogen economy, there are new players coming to the market. The issue is these newbies to the industry may not have the same insight or battle scars, like those in the traditional oil and gas sector that learned some very hard lessons.

New Process Safety Management
“We can’t afford to learn those same lessons from a hydrogen perspective,” Elliott said. “When you look at electrolyzers, you look at everything being contained inside. Actually, that’s more hazardous because there’s nowhere for the gas to go. If you have a hydrogen release it is all now in one container that will eventually overpressure. So, some of what you’re doing goes against what we’ve been learning and practicing from an oil and gas perspective.

“That’s the concern,” Crowe said. “The concern is the new players will come in and not and have to relearn that safety knowledge that is in in the industry already because they won’t have that background. It’s a concerning time.”

While the concerns are real, there is still time, but everyone has to start thinking about what process safety management systems look like now and in the near future.

“I think we’re at a point where maybe we should start to think about redefining, retooling reskilling,” Elliott said. “You’ve got to be a data architect. You’ve got to be a process safety guy. You’ve got to be a chemical engineer, an electrical engineer. You’ve got to know all these things. The title may not change, but the content will.”

In terms of safety and the energy transition, “we’re talking 5 to 10 years, and that’s probably almost being optimistic,” said Chris Stogner, Triconex Safety & Critical Control Leader at Schneider Electric. “But the fact of the matter is they need to start thinking about it now because it is going to change the way they do safety. Everyone has to start understanding this is the direction that’s coming, and we need to start planting these seeds now so they can start making incremental steps along the way so they’re fully ready to be digitally enabled when safety gets pulled into scope.”

“This is an advanced warning,” Elliott said, “the buses are coming, don’t get run over.”

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