Snam looks to data science for improved gas transport

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Snam looks to data science for improved gas transport
Snam is focused on effective implementation of digital technologies to progress from preventative to predictive approaches to asset integrity management (Photo: Snam Rete Gas)
  • Data is a strategic asset for the Italian gas network operator

  • It is investing EUR200-plus million in a future driven by digitalization

  • The company is open to collaboration with technology partners

  • It is willing to provide high-tech advisory partnerships to worldwide gas operators through its new Global Solutions business unit

Gas transmission system operators (TSOs) are keenly tracking advances in machine learning, artificial intelligence, the industrial Internet of Things and augmented reality to achieve safer and more efficient operations.

Some are starting or planning to integrate these digital technologies into more sophisticated data gathering, analysis and visualization systems to maintain, repair and operate their networks.

This is a strategic response to market demand, energy policy, regulatory requirements – including safety and security controls – and decarbonization targets, according to Andrea Stegher, vice president of corporate strategy for Snam, the Italian gas infrastructure player. Snam is active in transmission through TSO Snam Rete Gas, underground gas storage (Stogit), and regasification (GNL Italia). “Our customers are demanding more real-time data as balancing gas networks becomes more sophisticated,” Stegher said.

He describes Snam Rete Gas as a capacity and service provider whose data are crucial to its clients: “We are data managers. Data is a strategic asset for us. Everything that our IT systems manage is about optimizing internal efficiency and providing an effective service and information to clients.”

A major IT challenge

Such systems need to handle increasing complexity. Snam Rete Gas operates the most extensive gas transmission system on the European continent. In Italy, its network (figure 1) includes 32,000-plus kilometres (km) of high and medium pressure pipelines over widely complex geology and topography. There are 2,900 remote-monitored plants and 7,000 directly connected exit points for gas. In every 60 second-cycle, up to 25,000 gas measurements can be directly updated by a state-of-the-art dispatching centre located by Snam headquarters and with four people per shift controlling the whole network.

Elsewhere in Europe, the company participates directly in another 8,000 km of pipeline and some three billion cubic metres of gas storage capacity. DNV GL has supported Snam on some recent strategic initiatives and developments that reinforce the operator’s presence on the wider European stage, both on technical and commercial due diligence.

“Our European footprint means that we also want to apply our experience to benchmark and implement best practice consistently with other players,” observed Stegher. “We are a product of EU energy legislation, and are targeting integration of networks and operations to streamline processes. Safe, efficient delivery of gas can contribute to meeting EU decarbonization targets. Our initiatives strive to help that happen.”

Optimizing utilization of assets

Snam Rete Gas faces challenges familiar to many TSOs operating long-established gas networks in developed nations.

“We have to progressively consider ageing of assets, so maintenance is becoming more critical going forward,” said Stegher. “To avoid over-investment in new infrastructure, we must optimize utilization of existing assets. Any cost-benefit analysis of investment in digitalization should take into account how much better it allows us to use the current system.”

Some issues are more common to Italy. Much of the network is in densely-populated areas with higher risk of potentially damaging excavation by other utilities and constructors.

Parts of the country are at risk of landslides, and pipelines must sometimes cross areas with potential topographic instability. Snam Rete Gas monitors these pipelines and personnel check vibrating wire strain gauges that indicate earth movement to maintain – as in the earthquakes that affected Italy last year – safe and reliable operations.

Real-time solutions

Field staff now use about 1,000 tablet computers under the company’s SMART Gas – Sistema Manutenzione Rete Trasporto Gas, a tailor-made gas transport grid maintenance System – project. Launched in mid-2014, it is now fully operational and helps to review tools for managing asset lifecycles.

Frontline workers send information from these tablets to central servers. Their notes, notification of completion of construction and maintenance operations, and data from field instruments are available for analytics in real time. Activity in the field is integrated through the IT system to enable optimization of construction and maintenance schedules. Need-to-know information is fed back to the frontline.

Field activity is visualized on Snam Rete Gas’s own multi-layer cartography (Photo Snam Rete Gas)
Field activity is visualized on Snam Rete Gas’s own multi-layer cartography (Photo: Snam Rete Gas)

Activities are visualized on Snam Rete Gas’s own multi-layer cartography to support field activity and inform operatives about current and previous operations at network locations. The system can also provide information for training.

“We think our approach represents best practice in Italy and Europe; many companies ask to see how we have implemented this solution,” said Pierluca Ferrari, senior vice president ICT, Snam.

Investing in the future

Snam has earmarked more than EUR200 million between 2017 and 2021 for innovation and new technologies to improve pipeline network efficiency. This includes remote monitoring, real-time detection of possible leakages, and an augmented reality platform to support maintenance and network control.

“We are very focused on effective implementation of these technologies,” says Ferrari. “The goal will be to progress from preventative- to condition-based maintenance, while at the same time exploring and preparing for predictive approaches.”

As part of its digitalization programme, Snam Rete Gas is working with technology firms to develop and implement state-of-the-art field monitoring systems that transmit key parameters over an IP protocol, on GPRS/3G/4G communication technology, and which provide diagnostics services. They are designed to work in extreme environmental conditions without external power supply. Some have been deployed, others remain under development.

In another example, the TSO expects soon to start remote monitoring of data from strain gauges tracking the effect of landslides and ground movement on pipelines. “New ways of analysing this data will enable the continuous monitoring of our assets and a prompt intervention when needed,” said Ferrari.

Snam Rete Gas plans to improve training of field operatives through enhanced use of augmented reality. It is also exploring new capabilities offered by recent machine-learning technologies to see if these tools can offer quantitative support to its operatives.

Looking further ahead, Ferrari predicted greater innovation and flexibility of the entire European gas system. “It is reasonable to expect increased sophistication of digital twins of our physical assets due to the greater flexibility requested by the European Gas system as a whole,” he observed. “More sophistication will create new demands, such as the need for an increase in the volume of data sensed from our physical assets to better describe its digital counterpart.”

He continued: “We are looking at adaptive algorithms that can learn from experience to be able to govern the new rate of evolution of the system to generate answers just when they are needed. We are following these trends and trying to devise simple concepts or pilot projects to test them in an industrial environment.”

Sourcing and piloting innovation

Snam Rete Gas constantly tracks technologies that can enable continuous improvement in service reliability and quality. It closely monitors and works with national and international technical working groups.

The company also pursues projects and experimentation on new products involving all employees, vendors and system integrators.

It is open to collaboration with technology partners as it seeks to achieve its objectives through digitalization. Since 2015, it has met more than 200 start-ups and technology companies, analysing their solutions to verify if they can be used in Snam Rete Gas’s business. In some cases, it has piloted their use.

Each pilot has to be integrated into the operator’s application platform. Promising solutions are further examined to see if they could be viable as enterprise level software.

Speed is a prime characteristic of its innovation projects in the digitalization arena. “Technology is advancing at an exponential rate,” observed Ferrari. “We try to complete pilot or proof-of-concept projects as rapidly as possible. The goal is to rapidly build up a system that lets us interact with more than just one research centre, university or technology partner.”

Figure 1: Snam Rete gas operates the most extensive gas transmission system on the european continent
Figure 1: Snam Rete gas operates the most extensive gas transmission system on the European continent

Sharing knowledge

Snam Rete Gas sees innovation in digitalization as a tool to add further value to partnerships that it forges abroad. Most recently, it signed a memorandum of understanding for possible cooperation in using and developing Ukraine’s gas transmission system for example. It is also involved through its 40.5% stake in Transport et Infrastructures Gaz France in the South Transit East Pyrenees gas pipeline project to improve the interconnection between France and Spain.

“We are achieving high quality in our operations and are still trying to improve,” said Stegher. “We are striving to be a partner to other companies to help streamline and improve their level of efficiency. We see possibilities to better explore our competences that we consider state-of-the-art so that we can be a good partner. It depends on conditions and constraints on information sharing, but we are certainly entering a new phase in that respect.”

Snam wants to apply its experience to benchmark and implement best practice with other players in Europe (Photo: Snam Rete Gas)
Snam wants to apply its experience to benchmark and implement best practice with other players in Europe (Photo: Snam Rete Gas)


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