By Stefana Ciumpiliac, Technical Service Engineer, Hydroprocessing, Shell Catalysts & Technologies on Nov 15, 2019
With an audience of around 600 participants, ERTC 2019 created an inspirational space where refinery operators, catalyst suppliers, innovators, digital solutions and services providers interacted directly and shared ambitious plans and relevant learnings from recent industry developments.
After attending panel discussions, compelling presentations, and having informative conversations with other colleagues from the industry, the key actions I identified as essential to remain competitive in a low-carbon world are:
- Continuous innovations in the space of clean fuels, biofuels, and alternative production;
- Digital solutions applied smartly;
- Sound regulations to drive profitable, yet sustainable margins;
- Effective partnerships & collaborations with other industry players.
Continuous Innovations In The Space Of Clean Fuels
“Clean business is good business.” This resonated so much with me and a big part of the audience. It was the opening line in the panel discussion called Technology Trend Setters in which we heard the viewpoints of senior leaders from Axens, Shell Catalysts and Technologies, Honeywell, and Haldor Topsoe.
One of the questions that was discussed quite frequently by the panel was “How do we position ourselves as an industry to be perceived as the solution and not the problem?” I liked this because it brings a different perspective to how our industry is perceived -- to be seen not as a negative presence, but as an innovator that provides cleaner energy to a world that continues to grow and intensify its demand for energy.
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Observing these efforts is very motivational to me, as is the progress and the passion of industry colleagues who presented sustainable solutions in different stages of development. Think electrification, renewables (wind, solar), digitalization and the belief that advanced analytics could become a game-changer alongside ideas to reduce emissions through operation optimization and cooperation.
In our industry, the focus should be on how we make these changes happen here and now. There is a strong belief that the current problems can be solved with existing technologies -- by optimizing the units that are complex and flexible enough and can be tuned to meet market demand. Discussions centred on creative solutions that explored how to approach the mass production of renewable jet fuel from power, biomass and/or carbon dioxide and the structure of a biorefining platform of the future.
Companies investing in producing speciality products out of plastic waste also shared their success stories about developing technologies to transform plastic waste in biofuels. Furthermore, when talking about tackling GHG emissions, I learned about the progress done in the space of second-generation biofuels, like UCOME and TME, which are considered to be the best biofuels in terms of GHG emissions and sustainability as they don’t compete with food.
Learn More About Biofuel & Renewable Energy Technology
Digital Solutions Applied Smartly
One point made by a senior leader in a panel discussion resonated with me: Digital transformation requires business transformation and should be aligned with the company’s strategy. The two main challenges we will face in this journey are knowing how to apply the right digital solutions in the right way and developing the skills to change people’s mindsets.
The predicted next-generation capabilities will feature advanced analytics, agile approaches focused on continuous problem solving/quick successes and design thinking.
Ultimately, the rate of survival for refiners could be largely determined by the success of their digital transformation.
The main benefits of digitalization are increases in customer engagement, enhanced collaboration, empowered people, the ability to pull info at your fingertips and enabling people to spend time more efficiently.
Sound Regulations To Drive Profitable, Yet Sustainable Margins
The role of regulations in the profitability of European refineries -- despite not being visible enough to many -- plays an enormous role in how refiners decide on their strategies.
Furthermore, imported products are not exposed to the same regulations, which makes European products threatened by imports. How can European refineries approach this? Is there a way to put in place a carbon-border tax that will reduce the advantages current imports have over local European production? One important player at the conference issued this call to action and invited the audience to share their ideas in this space and brainstorm together.
Discussions also touched on changes in regulations for GHG emissions, RED II - Biofuels and IMO 2020 and their impact on the path forward for the downstream industry. The reality is that we find ourselves in a transition period in which regulations, technologies, prices, and incentives are shaped.
Topics at ERTC 2019 also addressed the refineries landscape for 2030-2050 in Europe, the utilization of refineries in Europe, how vulnerable the European market is due to imports, and the lack of growth opportunities. Several scenarios presented by global consultancy companies painted different outcomes, indicating that European refineries must confront uncertainties and contexts that will compel them to make bold business decisions.
The consensus seemed to be that the companies that become more efficient in operations, flexible in diversifying the crude slate, and invest in chemicals or consider integration with chemicals will be able to supply their customers for many years to come.
Effective Partnerships & Collaborations With Other Industry Players
What surprised me to an extent was to hear -- multiple times and during different stages of the event and from different people -- the need for collaborations and partnerships! The common goal was evident: Low-carbon initiatives should be everybody’s focus.
There were exciting examples of companies successfully becoming partners and improving their margin while also lowering their footprint and meeting new, demanding regulations.
Oftentimes, progress is driven by imposed regulations by various local governments; however, I met people at ERTC 2019 who have a clear passion for and commitment to improving technology and developing smart solutions to ensure the downstream industry will be profitable and sustainable in the future. These are the same people who are looking for like-minded partners with whom they can achieve their ambitious goals.
All in all, I feel very privileged to have taken part in this event and came away with a better understanding of the regional challenges and the evolving developments and requirements that continue to shape our industry.
Finally, despite the technological, economic, and regulatory challenges that lie ahead, I do believe that Shell Catalysts & Technologies is equipped with the proper industry innovators and experts to confidently navigate to and through the energy transition.