With the problem of energy security growing, everyone in the industry—from operators to service companies—has been asking “What’s next?” What’s the next new power source? What’s the next way to reduce capex? What’s the next new technology that can be implemented in the oil patch?

All signs point to electrification as the answer—an environmentally friendly solution that can save money and simplify overly complex operations.

“We need to take every advantage we can to lower the landed costs of a barrel of oil, and fuel is a big part of the equation,” Aaron Hilber, vice president of power solutions at NexTier Oilfield Solutions told Hart Energy. “So as much diesel as we can displace with cheaper natural gas, especially domestically produced natural gas, we need to do that.”

To meet these needs, companies including NexTier and ProPetro Services have begun to introduce their electric frac fleets to the market. NexTier, which recently merged with Patterson-UTI, is home to the Emerald Electric Fleet. The FORCE eFleet is ProPetro’s response to the industry-wide call for electrification.

Both NexTier and ProPetro model their electronic frac fleets after traditional diesel fleets, complete with blenders, trucks and data vans. The entire fracturing process has been streamlined, simplified and made safer due to electrification.

“One of the main premises of going electric is creating a more dense power output through a more simplified system with electric motors,” Sam Sledge, CEO of ProPetro, told Hart Energy. “You might have hundreds, if not thousands, of moving mechanical parts on a diesel engine and you might have just a couple hundred moving parts on an electric motor on an electric frac pump.”

Hearts and brains of electric fleets

Both ProPetro and NexTier use an electric blender, or E-Blender, which is what Sledge calls “the heart of the operation” to prepare the slurries and gels typically used in stimulation treatments. Both E-Blenders are fully autonomous and able to regulate and effectively meter the flow of chemicals and ingredients within the blender. Its automation, coupled with the elimination of manual operations, not only ensures steady and accurate tub levels but also reduces operator exposure to noise and other environmental elements.

And while the E-Blender may be the heart of the electric fleet, Sledge calls the data van the “brain of the operation.”

Completions Package: NextTier, ProPetro Electrify Frac Fleets
ProPetro CEO Sam Sledge calls the E-Blender the “heart” of the frac job (Source: ProPetro Services)

All frac jobs use data vans, which act as a physical centralized hub for the operation. What sets NexTier and ProPetro’s apart from traditional data vans is the level of control they command.

“It's a lot more streamlined and digital. We're controlling literally 100% of the equipment, which on these electric locations is about a dozen pieces of equipment — on site at the frac location,” Sledge said. “We're controlling every single one of those pieces of equipment from the data van where with our diesel fleets, you would've had some of that equipment controlled out on the ground across the location.”

The data van disseminates crucial information and control signals to various equipment, including frac pumps, blenders and chemical units. Through an ethernet connection, the system communicates with different equipment for a networked and integrated approach to oilfield operations. The centralized data from the van allows operators to throttle things up and down, turn things on and off and use measurement tools and sensors all from the comfort of the van.

Completions Package: NextTier, ProPetro Electrify Frac Fleets
(Source: LinkedIn)

There is a gap in the market for a premium service provider in the CNG space, so we designed and built our own compression stations and brought our own CNG trailers. Aaron Hilber, NextTier Oilfield Solutions

In scenarios where issues arise, the system can be manually operated from the treater station to ensure a continuous and reliable flow of processed fluid. When discrepancies in density readings occur, the operation can be halted for on-site technicians and mechanics to rectify the problem before resuming operations.

And while both NexTier and ProPetro’s data vans (and their frac operations as a whole) have similarities, where they differ is their power systems.

Fully customizable versus full control

ProPetro’s FORCE fleet’s power distribution unit is a customizable and remotely operable unit able to seamlessly integrate with standardized supply side power distribution.

NexTier’s Pressure Reduction System (PRS) is a unique, patent-pending device that regulates high-pressure gas from trailers in a controlled manner. This system addresses the industry's growing demand for a reliable and efficient gas supply, especially as more fleets transition towards using natural gas instead of diesel.

“The value of a frac fleet is dependent on having a reliable gas supply so that we can displace as much diesel as possible,” Hilber said. “There is a gap in the market for a premium service provider in the CNG space, so we designed and built our own compression stations and brought our own CNG trailers.”

The PRS, the largest system of its kind on the market, boasts the capability to flow 8,000 scf/d while also blending seamlessly with field gas. Its integration into well sites involves connecting steam trailers to deliver gas to frac pumps, optimizing the use of gas and diesel in the pumping process. This contributes to lowering fuel costs, a crucial factor in reducing the overall landed cost per barrel of oil.

“You can save yourselves upwards of maybe between $10 [million] and $30 million a year on one fleet. And that can equate to a 10% to 20% discount to a frac job just in fuel savings. So what’s behind this transition is the economic and financial incentives for mainly our customers. But we also benefit because we are using equipment that's cheaper to operate and is more power dense, in addition to other benefits,” Sledge said.

Completions Package: NextTier, ProPetro Electrify Frac Fleets
Sam Sledge, CEO of ProPetro Services (Source: ProPetro)

Aside from reducing costs, the industry needs this technology for several reasons, but especially for reliability, Hilber said. As electric frac fleets and those relying solely on natural gas become more prevalent, the consistency and dependability of gas supply has become paramount. The equipment and services offered by the company ensure a steady and reliable flow of gas, crucial for the success of frac operations.

“This specific equipment matters because the reliability of gas is becoming more and more critical as the industry brings out more electric frac fleets and fleets that use only natural gas and not diesel,” Hilber said. “Your whole frac operation is dependent on the reliability of the gas, so having equipment and services that always have gas available is critical.”

Looking ahead, both companies aim to continue to transition their respective fracturing fleets to electric fleets, with ProPetro hoping to become 100% natural gas powered. NexTier looks to expand its operations geographically to basins beyond the Permian Basin such as East Texas and the Marcellus Shale to meet the ever-evolving needs of the oil and gas industry.

Completions Package: NextTier, ProPetro Electrify Frac Fleets
The NexTier Data Van, which utilizes software from Mobile Data Technologies, allows the frac job to be controlled completely from the van (Source: Hart Energy)

Sledge said ProPetro’s power solution represents a significant leap forward in the oil and gas sector, promising not only cost savings but also enhanced reliability in gas supply—an essential combination for the industry's future sustainability and success.

“For our sector and our industry to continue to transition into these types of technologies, electrification is of the utmost importance... But if it's important for our industry, it's important for our country and our energy security here in the United States,” he said. “I think [electrification] is only strengthening our value proposition to our country and to the world as we are manufacturing energy more efficiently and with a lower carbon footprint than anywhere else on earth.”