Super-efficient LED lighting for oil rigs

11 April 2018



Oil rigs are turning in their droves to super-efficient LEDS to improve safety and cut costs. Peter Hunt, president of Lighting Europe and chief operating officer of the Lighting Industry Association, explains the benefits driving this trend.


Lighting an offshore oil rig is no simple task. Not only are there numerous safety considerations to take into account but also lightbulbs are fragile, meaning failures are inevitable, and replacement costs can be high. For most of its history, the industry has relied on conventional options such as fluorescent and gas discharge lighting. While these options – when tailored for use on oil rigs – are perfectly safe, the maintenance required can be substantial and their use of power is not particularly efficient. This situation, however, has begun to change.

Given today’s tightened margins, oil companies are seeking ways to cut costs and become more environmental-friendly. Lighting has emerged as a key arena in which savings can potentially be made.

In a rig situation, it may be more expensive to employ the labour to change a lamp than the lamp costs.

More specifically, operators are turning towards light emitting diodes (LEDs). Unlike a typical light bulb, LEDs contain no filament, and are lit by electrons passing through semiconductor materials. Although their upfront costs are often higher than the alternatives, there is a growing consensus that they represent value for money over time.

Peter Hunt, president of Lighting Europe and chief operating officer of the Lighting Industry Association, believes that the benefits will become progressively harder to ignore.

“LED has energy efficiency – up to 90% saving over conventional technology,” he says. “Longer life means less maintenance – in a rig situation, it may be more expensive to employ the labour to change a lamp than the lamp costs. LEDs can last for 40,000 hours or longer.”

Live long and prosper

These energy savings can make all the difference. According to the oil and gas association IPIECA, the energy needed on offshore rigs is typically supplied by diesel engines, which use 20-30m³ (about 16–25t) of diesel fuel every day. This is about a tenth as much as a large cruise ship.

Since around 20% of an oil rig’s energy demands can be attributed to lighting, switching to a more energy efficient version has major implications for fuel costs. Their long life span can also mean less maintenance and downtime, which in turn saves money and helps minimise the risk of human error.

Being electronic, they use electronic controls, which are safer than conventional switchgear and can also be ‘smart’ in that they can link together, work in conjunction with other rig systems and be controlled by a variety of sensors.

Hunt adds that LEDs are a cool source, meaning that while they do generate heat, they run much cooler than other technology and therefore lend themselves better to hazardous areas, the caveat being that thermal management strategies must still be put in place.

On top of that, they’re small and can therefore be incorporated into luminaires. This saves space, and enables light to be cast in almost any situation.

“Being electronic, they use electronic controls, which are safer than conventional switchgear and can also be ‘smart’ in that they can link together, work in conjunction with other rig systems and be controlled by a variety of sensors,” says Hunt.

Perhaps most crucially, they’re perfect for providing high visibility across oil rigs, thereby improving personnel safety. Since they come to full illumination straight after being turned on, there is no need for workers to wait around in dim spaces.

So to what extent are oil and gas rigs already switching to LEDs, and how well suited is the technology to the dangerous conditions offshore?

To look at the LED market as a whole, while the technology is still in its early adopter phase, it is becoming increasingly widely used. Projections vary, but a recent report by Zion Market Research suggests the market is growing at a CAGR of around 13%. Standing at $26 billion in 2016, it is expected to reach $54 billion by 2022.

Its share of the overall lighting market is trending upward too. According to a US Government report, LEDs commanded less than 1% of US market share in 2012. By 2016, that figure had grown to 12.6%. As the unit price continues to tumble, we can expect the percentage to rise steeply.

While LEDs have been around since the 1960s, it is only over the past decade or so that they have begun to hit the mainstream. Once confined to calculator displays and indicator lights in remote controls, they are now used in homes, businesses and a variety of industrial applications.

Their transformative potential should not be understated – in fact, LEDs might be considered be a true step change in lighting. As stated in a 2011 McKinsey report, LEDs are only the fourth major innovation in the history of artificial lighting, following on from fire, incandescent light and fluorescent light. This means that, for an industry as conservative as oil and gas, LEDs might initially seem like a bold option.

Given that the technology is relatively new and untested – at least, compared to what it’s replacing – the majority of operators to date have chosen to stick to what they know.

However, demand for LEDs in hazardous locations is now beginning to surge. Not only are customers becoming more conversant with industrial LEDs but the technology itself has also advanced, with many manufacturers offering LEDs designed specifically for hazardous locations.

Today’s best industrial LEDs can withstand Class I, II and III hazardous location conditions, as outlined by the US’s National Electrical Code (NEC) and the Canadian Electrical Code (CEC). For reference purposes, Class I locations are those in which flammable gases or vapours may be present in the air; Class II locations may have combustible dust in hazardous concentrations; and Class III include easily ignitable fibres.

Potentially disastrous

The common denominator in all these cases is a risk of explosions. If a lighting fixture is poorly designed, any spark or burst could set off a dangerous chain reaction that culminates in disaster.

“Lighting in hazardous areas must comply with a stringent set of criteria designed to exclude any potentially explosive gases coming into contact with heat or electrical switch circuits,” says Hunt. “Clearly, lighting that is not specifically designed for the purpose could cause an explosion or fire if, for example, explosive gases came into contact with a small arc generated from a switch or other source.”

Today’s industrial LED fixtures are designed to all but eliminate the possibility of ignition. With their rugged, durable construction, they are able to withstand harsh weather conditions and corrosive salt water, as well as shouldering bumps and knocks more easily than the alternatives. They’re ultra-safe, too, containing no hazardous chemicals such as mercury.

Easily LED

SpecGrade LED, for example, bills its hazardous location products as the most “durable, high performance explosion-proof lighting available on the market today”.

Its products are shielded with tempered glass, protecting them against almost any form of direct force or local explosion. Each fixture lasts up to 100,000 hours and provides even illumination across the workspace. The company also says each LED luminaire can save clients over 66% in energy costs. With so many well-attested advantages, the big question might be why so many offshore oil rigs have yet to make the switch.

To a large extent, it may come down to the sheer size of the undertaking. In 2013, one supplier told Rigzone that more than five million light bulbs in oil and gas applications would need to be replaced in total.

Hunt, however, feels that retrofitting offshore oil rigs with LEDs need not be too difficult. “Installation is no more a challenge than any other technology – in fact they can be much easier to install,” he says.

“The main consideration is how to take advantage of the smart capabilities of LED lighting and integrate them into other systems for improved control.”

For many operators, the question of whether or not to take the leap comes down to cost. After all, if you’re already feeling the strain financially, the associated capital expenditure may well pose an obstacle to change.

The main consideration is how to take advantage of the smart capabilities of modern LED lighting and integrate them into other systems for improved control.

However, as the costs of the technology continue to fall – and its advantages become more widely demonstrated – ever more operators will find themselves justifying the price tag. If you factor in the security, safety and productivity benefits, you may find the technology pays for itself sooner than anticipated.

Before long, we will likely see the market reach a new level of maturity, in which LED lighting seems like the only viable option for hazardous environments like oil rigs.

Bright prospect

Peter Hunt believes the number of offshore oil and gas rigs using LED will continue to rise. When asked what kind of lighting mix he expects to see in ten years’ time, he says, “100% LED, unless another technology comes along that is better.”

With market penetration still relatively low, this may sound like a bold claim, but it’s one that’s backed up by the available evidence.

Smart control capabilities make LED lights an attractive option, as they can easily be integrated into wider systems.
Smart control capabilities make LED lights an attractive option, as they can easily be integrated into wider systems.


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