Temporary Process Solutions Boost Profits for Plant Owners
These solutions solve problems caused by capacity constraints, shutdowns and regulatory mandates.
Refineries and chemical processing plants often face operational or regulatory bottlenecks that can slow production and shrink the bottom line. But the right temporary process solution can remove these bottlenecks. They can also help plant owners capitalize on short windows of opportunity to generate extra revenue.
Temporary process solutions include not only equipment such as chillers, cooling towers, pumps and heat exchangers but also an engineered process design for each situation.
“Temporary process solutions typically can be designed and installed in just one or two weeks,” said Robert Carpenter, process engineer at United Rentals.
Capital today is very restricted in refineries and other chemical plants, so companies are typically unwilling to spend money on long-term capital projects to solve short-term problems. But someone at the plant level can make the decision to implement a temporary process solution, and the rented equipment can be easily added to, reduced or removed depending on a plant’s needs.
Carpenter said that the problems in plants generally fall into one of three categories: capacity constraints, shutdowns and regulatory mandates.
Overcoming capacity constraints
With temporary process solutions, a plant can modify its operations to boost capacity temporarily. Consider summer operations, for instance. Warmer temperatures get more drivers on the road but they also have a negative effect on a refinery’s cooling processes. “So at the same time I want to get more product through my unit, the rising temperatures create limits on how much I can do,” Carpenter said. Adding equipment to provide extra cooling can increase production and profits.
“What we end up charging for a rental is generally a fraction of the profit they are going to make,” said Carpenter. “Suppose we can get an extra 1,000 barrels a day through a refinery, which is less than 1 percent of the daily production at those plants. If they have a $15 a barrel margin, we’re making them $15,000 a day, when the rental equipment might be $30,000 a month.”
Providing backup for turnarounds and shutdowns
When parts of a plant are shut down for maintenance or repair, the streams of oil or other products produced during specific processes may be too hot to transfer to storage tanks. Waiting for these fluids to cool on their own could take days — and that means days of lost production. Using temporary cooling equipment, plants can bring the temperatures down quickly, get the streams into the tank safely (while also keeping emissions down) and get the plant back online sooner.
Catastrophic losses, such as a cooling tower collapse or a chiller breaking, don’t happen often, but when they do, an engineer experienced in temporary process solutions can quickly assess what chillers, towers, pumps and other equipment can be brought in to get the plant back in operation as quickly as possible.
Meeting regulatory requirements
The EPA is in the process of rolling out its new refinery sector rule, and plant operators are unsure how it will impact their operations. “At a conference I recently attended, an EPA representative said that this is one of the most complicated pieces of legislation ever put together,” said Carpenter. “It still leaves a lot of uncertainty, but it cracks down on everything.”
With temporary process solutions, plants will be able to rapidly adapt their operations to limit VOC releases, meet new temperature limits for wastewater discharges and comply with any other requirements the regulations will impose.
Capitalizing on market opportunities
Commodity prices can be volatile, and the window of opportunity to realize profits when prices soar can be narrow. “Temporary process solutions can allow you to capitalize on that window of opportunity by increasing production,” said Carpenter. If prices plummet, it’s easy to remove the rented equipment and return production to previous levels.
Even when margins are low, there can be sweet spots or profit pools hidden within the product mix. Octane is currently in demand; at the pump, there’s almost $1 a gallon difference between 87 and 92 octane products. A quickly installed temporary process solution in a refinery can boost octane production.
Ensuring the right solution
Plants considering temporary process solutions should remember that the equipment is only one part of the equation, Carpenter noted. It’s important to work with a company that can provide good engineering solutions and that understands and can assist with all the necessary documentation, like management of change.
Once plant operators bring in temporary equipment and see how well it works, they usually want to keep it.
“While about 70 percent of our projects last only a few months, they almost always stay longer than originally planned,” said Carpenter. “That’s because everything is working great, the problem is fixed and it gives the plants some margin.”
Freelance writer Mary Lou Jay writes about business and technical developments in a variety of industries. She has been covering residential and commercial construction for more than 25 years.