World's first 100% low-carbon powered wells | SLB
Piloting the world’s first wells using 100% low-carbon power
by  Philip Robertson
What does sustainably powered drilling look like today and where is it heading? The answer lies in emissions-free hydrogen fuel cells, which play a key role in helping drilling contractors and operators eliminate rig emissions, reduce equipment maintenance, and expand into previously inaccessible locations.

The oil and gas industry plays a vital part in addressing climate change on a global scale, so it may come as no surprise that, to sustainably drive high performance and accelerate their path to net zero, today’s drilling contractors and operators are already taking significant steps to reduce emissions and adopt low-carbon tech across the well life cycle. These organizations recognize that building a lower-carbon future while meeting the ever-growing demand for energy requires unprecedented accountability, newfound operational efficiencies, and early investment in promising tech.

Most tech used in well construction is only capable of eliminating about a quarter of the emissions produced by conventional diesel generators. In other words, electrifying equipment is a good starting point, but certainly not enough. To meet ambitious environmental, social, and governance (ESG) targets now and in the years to come, we must eliminate emissions from drilling operations specifically.

Hydrogen fuel-cell systems that are both powerful and mobile could be the sustainable answer we’ve been looking for.

Rig emissions produced during the drilling phase (although they vary depending on several factors) contribute a sizeable portion of the overall carbon footprint of a well. To reduce them—or even eliminate them—and meet our ESG objectives as an industry, we need more sustainable drilling technologies, digital solutions, and alternative rig power sources. 

This is where novel tech like mobile fuel cells comes in. While there is still much to be done for carbon-free, renewable energy to become widely commercialized, hydrogen fuel-cell systems can simultaneously power rigs and rapidly decarbonize drilling.

How fuel cell systems work

To be suitable for large-scale and long-term power supply, a clear-cut fuel-cell system that meets the same horsepower and footprint specifications of a diesel generator must be manufactured. Fuel cells generate electricity through a chemical reaction between hydrogen gas and oxygen from the air—the only by-product being pure water vapor. Multiple fuel cells can be built into one system to achieve the required output, which is then directed to the rig’s power distribution system.

That said, fuel cells are not an all-or-nothing approach. While some may choose to replace all the rig’s generators with this carbon-free power, others may initially deploy a combination of energy storage and distribution alternatives. This innovative one-for-one design allows oil and gas companies to reduce both rig emissions and their environmental footprint in terms of air emissions and noise pollution.

Applying fuel cells across the oilfield

Hydrogen is a crucial energy carrier in our industry’s plan to achieve its energy transition goals. The versatility of hydrogen enables oilfield operators to use transportable fuel cells in a wide range of applications. Fuel-cell systems have the capability to power entire drilling rigs; generate useful heat; fuel fleets for long-haul, heavy-duty transport; and more—all with zero emissions at the point of use. (Keep in mind that we’re referring to point of use here and not necessarily point of creation, which is addressed further down.) 

Pair the physical fuel cell with digital management and you’ve got yourself long-term sustainability.

Fuel-cell power systems also benefit well construction operations by eliminating generator noise, vibration, and maintenance. With dependable, low-carbon, quiet power production at the rig site, operators can minimize downtime while ensuring enhanced health and safety performance for both people and the environment. The tech enables drilling in areas that are restricted due to carbon-intensive emissions control at the point of operations and diesel generator noise levels, both of which would be mitigated with a hydrogen fuel cell power solution.

Pair it with intelligent, predictive power management systems that can further optimize operations to reduce emissions, fuel consumption, and engine run time on the rig and this transportable fuel-cell tech can improve drilling performance, efficiency, and long-term sustainability like never before.

Wide adoption by operators and drilling contractors

Current partnerships between high-power hydrogen fuel cell innovators, service providers, and leading drilling contractors means that we could be seeing the world’s first well with 100% carbon-free power drilled within the next year. Everyone has their role. While contractors are pursuing improved ESG credentials through modern tech, service providers are playing their part in reducing Scope 1 emissions. 

Collaborative pilot projects such as these are uncovering both the challenges and opportunities of implementing transportable fuel cells for sustainable drilling operations. As the energy industry shifts to a lower-carbon future, however, the pace at which this tech becomes an industry-wide practice will be determined by ESG requirements, logistics, and economics. 

Fuel cells in oil and gas are still a novel tech, but they have the potential to overpower (pun definitely intended) existing energy sources.

It is also imperative that we consider how to best reduce or offset emissions at the point of hydrogen creation and not just usage. Combining hydrogen production with carbon capture, utilization, and sequestration (CCUS) to produce “blue” hydrogen , for example, brings the credential of this clean fuel from end to end—from the point of creation to the point of use. Leaders in CCUS are uniquely positioned to help accelerate the production of carbon-free blue hydrogen by ensuring it can be used as a low-carbon secure source of energy across a wide range of industries including oil and gas. 

Of course, hydrogen infrastructure will be key to the larger adoption of hydrogen across oilfield operations. The number of hydrogen hubs is starting to grow, partly due to the growing demand for fuel-cell electric-heavy trucks. Additionally, innovative tech for converting waste gas such as flare gas and solid waste into hydrogen fuel will also help drive down costs while making hydrogen more accessible for drilling contractors and operators.

While fuel cell tech presents an ideal solution for reducing carbon emissions and is being actively deployed in numerous ways, it’s still very much an emerging tech that will require continued research and growth to out-compete existing energy-intensive sources. It’s up to early adopters and ambitious tech players to advance the viability of high-power fuel cells and other lower-carbon tech at scale.


Philip Robertson

Product Manager for Rig Equipment

Philip has spent his career applying automation theories and concepts to business, driving innovation across products and solutions as well as business models and execution methods. From a background in control systems engineering through multiple business leadership roles, he continues to marry creativity and curiosity with the ability to correlate data and actions with their potential big-picture impact.

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