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Process safety in net zero will rely on close collaboration, according to participants of a recent TÜV safety workshop

Photo: Adobe Stock

As the energy industry undergoes rapid transformations on its journey to net zero, the importance of robust process safety measures cannot be overstated. Gaynor Woodford, TÜV Rheinland Sustainability Lead, and Laszlo Komaromi AMEI, Energy Institute (EI) Senior Technical Officer, share insights from the November 2023 TÜV Rheinland Process Safety Management Workshop and Conference, in which the EI actively participated.

Globally, nations and organisations are setting targets to achieve net zero CO2e emissions by 2050. In just 27 years, we have to rethink how we generate, store and use energy. For comparison, the first industrial revolution that introduced steam and water power took over a century. Data shows that decarbonisation is just not happening fast enough; current forecasts suggest a year-on-year decarbonisation rate of 17% is required to achieve a 1.5°C global temperature rise above pre-industrial levels.


History has demonstrated the opportunities introduced by each industrial revolution brings new hazards, but the challenge is to ensure changes to major accident hazards are properly managed, whether they occur in conventional or unconventional industry sectors.


In the European context, for example, 55% of CO2e emissions need to be reduced by 2030. Initially, abatement is expected to use existing technologies and techniques combined with demand-side measures. Beyond 2030, abatement will require application of new technologies at scale. This introduces complexity of planning in the short and long term.  


Over the next 27 years, climate change will also start to impact physically on operations, but what this will mean for specific locations is to a degree uncertain. What is certain is that during this period, the energy industry will undergo significant changes, which will require a rapid response from the sector to adapt to both technological advancements and the challenges posed by climate change.


Insights from the workshop 
For context, the delegates came from diverse industry backgrounds, but were predominantly UK-based.


Uncertainty was a common theme throughout the workshop, not only due to physical climate impacts. Delegates highlighted that where investment is required, uncertainty in government policy and market direction is causing delays. On the other hand, a counterpoint expressed was that investing is ethically the ‘right’ thing to do, but factoring in the moral balance to payback calculations is a challenge.


Other challenges explored were those likely to be faced with new hazards and inventories, which were acknowledged to be an issue. For example, not only are lithium-ion batteries scaling up, but also new inventories are bringing known hazards into new sectors. For example, ammonia (with its toxic and flammable hazards) is an established commodity product but is being reimagined as a future bulk fuel in the energy industry.


Delegates were asked if they had the techniques to assess the risks posed. The consensus was that existing methods are adequate but will probably require minor adjustment; for example, to ensure that in retrospective hazard studies on legacy operations the impact of climate change is addressed. There was also discussion about how to ensure new operators in different sectors accessed and used existing guidance.


Finally, for new and evolving technologies, delegates were asked to consider how relevant good practice (RGP) may be identified, and how risks from these technologies can be shown to be as low as reasonably practicable (ALARP).


With respect to RGP, specific areas where there are potential gaps perceived included:

  • Physical impacts of climate change (such as wildfires, increased lightning strikes, wind loading, ambient temperature).
  • Development and interaction of hazard studies across multiple sites/companies (for example, where there is industrial symbiosis, such as HYNET and Net Zero Teesside development projects).
  • Impact of technology on engineering controls and safeguards as well as on administrative controls (including operator training, operating manuals, control philosophy, human factors, distributed control system changes, safety critical task analysis).  


From this discussion it became apparent that the speed of change was a concern, as well as the sheer volume of information and data that may need to be considered in tandem. All participants believed that to identify RGP, collaboration is essential, as is sharing across industry sectors to avoid information overload or ‘reinventing the wheel’, particularly when trying to promote learning from incidents.


Confidentiality was another factor that is foreseen as a challenge, particularly where there are commercial sensitivities with new technology. The final discussion point was around the communication – and public perception – of risk, which remains challenging, particularly if the combination of speed of change and new operators leads to an increase in incidents.


Surprise conclusion 
After three hours of lively discussion, one of the surprise conclusions was that the technical implementation of net zero plans was not perceived to be a challenge. Instead, the following three process safety leadership challenges were highlighted: 

  • Management of change, in particular the speed of the change being too quick, or complex, for existing management systems. 
  • Competency concerns about inadequate understanding of process safety by senior leadership, as well as a lack of understanding of risks more broadly within organisations (and not solely for new entrants).
  • Collaboration will be a necessity, both cross-sector and within industry, whilst being mindful that commercial sensitivities with new technology could potentially lead to a lack of knowledge-sharing.


These findings highlight the importance of effective collaboration and communication across the industry when it comes to navigating the complex challenges of the energy transition. Companies are adopting a more agile, risk-based approach to process safety in response to the increasing complexity and interdependencies of emerging risks. Governments, regulatory bodies and industry associations have been developing new RGP or updating existing ones to keep the industry informed about these risks and provide practical advice on how to manage them.

For instance, the EI has launched an initiative to adapt its existing process safety good practice materials to meet the needs of the energy transition. These materials include technical guidance documents, codes of safe practice and research reports. Professional development training courses related to these materials are also being revised to reflect these changes. This is to ensure that process safety professionals understand the potential impacts of new technologies on traditional energy infrastructures.


It is evident from these findings and observations that building a safe energy future requires a multifaceted approach. First, there is a need for ongoing adaptation and refinement of process safety practices and regulations to keep pace with technological advancements.


The overall aim of the EI initiative is to address the challenges posed by the energy transition and provide companies with the necessary tools to integrate new technologies and new processes into their standard operations in a safe and efficient manner. An example is considering alternative, low-carbon substances and their potential impact on passive fire protection requirements in the ongoing revision of the EI good practice guidelines Guidance on passive fire protection for process and storage plant and equipment. In many cases these substances have significantly higher flame temperatures and different thermal radiation characteristics compared to hydrocarbons. Therefore, modifications or enhancements to traditional passive fire protection systems may be required to ensure adequate protection.


The role of the regulator
Regulators play a crucial role in regulating, guiding, collaborating and enforcing safety throughout the transition to net zero. In Great Britain, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has established an internal net zero hub to help prioritise and ensure a consistent approach to the adaption of new technologies. That has a particular focus on hydrogen and low-carbon liquid fuels, carbon capture, use and storage (CCUS) and decommissioning and repurposing fossil fuel infrastructure.


HSE is working closely with government and industry stakeholders to ensure that net zero innovations properly consider the health and safety of workers and the public. This requires ongoing assessment of the potential risks posed by new energy systems, and alignment of the existing legal framework with evolving industry operations, to ensure safe integration of these systems. Likewise, environmental regulators seek to protect sensitive receptors (such as people, ecosystems or critical infrastructure) from changed operations and technologies, as well as understanding wider sustainability impacts.


Next steps 
It is evident from these findings and observations that building a safe energy future requires a multifaceted approach. First, there is a need for ongoing adaptation and refinement of process safety practices and regulations to keep pace with technological advancements.


Timely and effective communication of risk is now more critical than ever, due to the unprecedented speed of change of operational practices driven by the transition. Existing process safety management frameworks must be able to handle the speed and complexity of net zero implementation. This can be achieved through the adoption of proactive safety management practices. However, the efficacy of such practices depends on the availability of comprehensive and reliable data about new hazards, risks and control measures associated with new energy substances and their respective infrastructures. There is an ongoing challenge across the industry in identifying, collecting, managing and analysing such data, mainly due to the relatively short operational history of these substances.


Open sharing of data is therefore vital for making the transition to new energy systems safer. Companies should continue exploring opportunities for pre-competitive collaboration and exchanging knowledge to address challenges that are shared across the industry. These steps, building on the findings of the TÜV Rheinland Process Safety Management Workshop and Conference, are key to preserving the integrity of process safety in the future energy landscape.