Use of big data drives demand for electricity

Nothing is transforming oil and gas production operations today more than the use of “big data.” Its use is underpinning new waves of technological innovation that unleashed both the shale revolution and offshore drilling in ultra-deep waters globally.

Big data is technical information that is generated through the use of modern computing technology. However you may view its use in surveillance for national security or as a marketing technique among retailers, the availability of big data and its processing in supercomputers in the petroleum industry has made America the fastest growing and number two oil and gas producer in the world. Witness the Energy Information Administration’s forecast that the United States will overtake Saudi Arabia as the world’s biggest oil producer in 2015.

The amount of new data generated and used in oil and gas drilling is astounding, and it comes as nothing less than a miracle for unlocking enormous quantities of domestically-produced oil and gas to meet America’s insatiable demand for energy.

For example, vast amounts of seismic data are gathered on rock formations miles deep in the earth, allowing oil and gas companies to capture, store, manage and analyze real-time data, evaluating these formations almost instantly. Energy engineers and geoscientists in 3-dimensional visualization theaters can now observe events thousands of feet underground during drilling, fracing, and production operations, enhancing decision making for optimal oil-and-gas production, while bolstering safety and curbing the release of methane gas.

And oil and gas operators are now using digital technology to evaluate and predict expected performance of offshore drilling rigs to prevent subsea failures like the 2010 Macondo accident in the Gulf of Mexico.

To grasp the magnitude of the changes taking place not only in energy production but also manufacturing and the social media, consider that, in the last three decades, computing speeds have risen more than 200,000-fold, while costs have dropped 10,000-fold. In fact, the world’s bank of digital information is growing at a rate of roughly five trillion bits a second.

But there is little awareness of the enormous amount of electricity needed to power this digital revolution. There are tens of thousands of data centers being built, each needing as much electricity as a large factory.

It’s no surprise that the Energy Information Administration expects electricity consumption to increase by 12 percent over the next two decades, despite improvements in efficiency and slower economic growth. Scores of new power plants will be needed, and for reliability and protection against wide swings in natural gas prices, we will also need clean coal and nuclear power. Renewable energy sources have drawn a lot of attention, but for base-load electricity in Ohio, we cannot afford to rely on solar and wind energy that provide power only when the weather cooperates.

Now is the time to start building an electric-power infrastructure to support the emerging changes and escalating uses of digital technology. Economic and environmental benefits for Ohio and America will certainly follow.

Robert W. Chase is chair and professor of Marietta College’s Department of Petroleum Engineering and Geology.