About nine years ago, Russ Graham and a business partner visited an oil and natural gas well site in northeastern British Columbia to supervise retrofits to production equipment. As they waited for parts to arrive, they looked around and noticed discarded solar chemical injection pumps lying on the ground. The operator told them the solar pumps had been replaced with conventional pneumatic pumps because the solar ones didn’t work. Graham started to ask the operator questions.
“I asked him, why didn’t the solar pumps work? What would he like them to do? What would be most beneficial in terms of operational efficiency?” remembers Graham, then working for an oilfield services company.
The more questions Graham asked about solar pumps, the more intrigued he became. He saw an opportunity to improve a technology that could enhance oilfield operations while lowering environmental impact.
Certainly there was a potential need in the industry for the equipment, if designed right. Today there are thousands of pumps in use throughout the oil and natural gas industry. These pumps inject small amounts of chemicals into the process stream to increase productivity, either to prevent gas from freezing up, manage pipe corrosion or mitigate other problems. Many of these pumps are situated in remote locations, far from access to electrical power. Frequently they utilize natural gas. And while these pumps are simple to operate, they’re not always reliable and leaks can lead to fugitive methane emissions that contribute to global warming.
For Graham, the case for coming up with a better solar pump became compelling. At that point, Graham, who has a business development background, had worked in Canada’s oil and natural gas industry for almost twenty years. With entrepreneurial insight, he saw the opportunity for a breakthrough innovation.
He knew that solar technology was a good fit given the remote locations involved, the need for an independent power source and the opportunity to lower GHG emissions. However, it wasn’t sufficient to simply slap solar cells on a pump—the technology had to work reliably and well under real-world conditions.
“Everything we’ve done since then has been to come up with a better solar technology solution,” says Graham. Since 2010, Graham has headed up TRIDO Industries, a Calgary-based company that provides high-efficiency solar-powered equipment for the industry.
In searching for answers to the solar pump problem, Graham and his team soon identified that finding a motor that was extremely reliable was critical. They found just such a motor here in Canada. Developed at the University of Saskatchewan for NASA’s space elevator program, the motor could be readily adapted to power a high-efficiency solar chemical injection pump. Over the next two years, they worked to develop a viable design and prototype.
To take the technology to the next stage, Graham next approached the Petroleum Technology Alliance Canada (PTAC), an industry-funded innovation incubator that supports market-driven technologies and cross-industry collaboration.
Because of reliability issues with earlier solar pumps, industry was initially cautious about TRIDO’s technology. To win companies over, Graham took an active part in PTAC information sessions. PTAC also helped Graham and TRIDO with a grant to further develop the technology, and linked the startup with an industry partner (in this case, Encana) which was willing to test the solar pump at its Three Hills, Alberta, wellsite.
“PTAC was instrumental in putting us in touch with an industry partner. At the same time, they also did an extensive report on the test findings. This all helped to build industry confidence in the technology,” Graham says.
Since commercializing the technology, TRIDO has installed about 1,500 of its solar-power systems. They power approximately 2,500 pumps throughout Western Canada and the U.S. In the process, TRIDO has built a loyal customer base that includes Encana, Shell Canada, Cenovus Energy, Husky Energy and Peyto Exploration & Development.
Graham says the technology is helping companies boost performance and improve environmental outcomes. The pump allows operators to pump chemicals to one site or multiple locations, as well as pump at different rates and pressures for more accurate chemical injection. And compared to older solar technologies, the pump draws less power, requiring fewer solar panels and batteries.
“The innovative thing with our technology is you’re running the pump on solar, rather than pneumatics, so you’re able to reduce environmental footprint,” says Graham, who estimates that current installations are preventing about 200,000 tonnes a year of GHGs from being emitted—about 125 tonnes CO2-equivalent per pump.
“We’ve had a lot of positive response to the technology from producers. They’re telling us this is the kind of innovation we need as an industry to more responsibly manage emissions.”