By Lefteris Karagiannopoulos
OSLO (Reuters) - A magnetic robot resembling a mini quad bike and a four meter snake-like machine are among the new tools that Norway, Europe's second-largest gas exporter after Russia, says will help cut maintenance time at its gas plants and keep supplies flowing.
Maintenance at Norway's three main plants, Nyhamna, Kollsnes and Kaarstoe, is conducted annually and the country's gas output, vital for British and central European customers, is reduced as a result, affecting fuel prices around the continent.
Helped by its new technology, operator Gassco estimates the impact of maintenance on combined output at Kaarstoe and Kollsnes will average 2.5 billion cubic meters (bcm) a year from 2021 to 2025, down from about 3.5 bcm in the five years before.
The new tools gather information that Gassco can use to optimize its maintenance plans, while inspection robots can replace time-consuming and costly inspections by humans and significantly cut downtime for certain plant assets.
"The pre-work and after-work you need to do to prepare the vessel to be safe and send an inspector in there take time and are costly ... Now we have reduced this time by 50-80%," said Haakon Hilmar Ferkingstad, senior engineer at Gassco.
The new equipment includes Bike, a small magnetic robot that Gassco has started using at Kaarstoe's and Nyhamna's pressure vessels, and the snake-like machine, which will inspect pipelines at Nyhamna later this year.
The robots were invented by a European Union co-funded program called Petrobot, and adapted for Gassco's needs by General Electric.
Equinor and Shell, technical service providers at the Gassco operated plants, also contributed in developing the modified robots, with alterations including better quality cameras and 3D modeling.
The robots can also be used during unplanned outages related to issues in pipelines or pressure vessels to accelerate a plant's return to service.
Gassco said that for Kollsnes and Kaarstoe, the projected maintenance-related impact on output for 2020 was 3.5 bcm; a little less than 2 bcm for 2021 and 2022; 3.5 bcm for 2023 and 2024, and back below 2 bcm for 2025.
It did not provide similar projections for Nyhamna, but said maintenance optimization was also ongoing there.
Norway last year piped 114.2 bcm of gas to Europe, the second highest level on record.
(Editing by Terje Solsvik and Mark Potter)