10/26/2012 03:26 EDT | Updated 12/22/2012 05:12 EST

Pumpjack Powerplants: Alberta Company Generating Green Electricity From The Downswing Of Pumpjacks


The slow sway of the oilfield pumpjack, or nodding donkey as some call it, is one of the most familiar sights in Alberta. Drive around long enough and they become just another part of the landscape. But a small, innovative company based in Edmonton, Alberta named Canadian Control Works is re-imagining pumpjacks as green micro-generators.

A pumpjack is like an iceberg. The vast majority of it is hidden, mysterious and out of sight. Underneath the pumpjack there are two to three kilometers of rod string which can weigh between five and 10 tons. Moving that weight requires a lot of electricity. Canadian Control Works is the group behind the Enersaver, a device which generates electricity from otherwise wasted kinetic energy created by the downswing of a pumpjack.

Think of it like the regenerative braking on a hybrid or electric car.

"If you took all of those pumpjacks, just in Alberta, you're looking at 300,000 tonnes of steel that's going up and down. That's twice the amount of weight of water falling over Niagara Falls every minute," says David Gray the past-president of Canadian Control Works. "It's a huge amount of energy that's out there. Obviously we can't capture the same amount of energy that you would out of Niagara Falls, but even capturing 10 or 15 per cent of that would be huge."

In their home province of Alberta 8,000 pumpjacks come online a year and there more than 150,000 currently operating pumpjacks in Canada's most resource-rich province.

Renewable Energy Inspiration

Funny enough it was the world of renewable energy that inspired the Enersaver pumpjack controller in the first place.

"It was an innovation that started here with a couple of farm boys who thumbed through the catalogues of solar and wind power inverters and found the right thing to make this work," says Gray.

The farm boys in question are Michael Lysenko, VP of Engineering and Lorne Tilby, VP of production. By using off-the-shelf parts manufactured for other uses they were able to keep costs low and see if the idea would actually work before scaling up.

In a typical pumpjack, the energy generated by the downswing has to be bled off through resistors - think of a giant toaster element. The heat is bled off into the surrounding area. These resistors also tend to fail in a standard pumpjack controller - so not only does the Enersaver generate green electricity out of waste, it makes for a more reliable pumpjack that costs less to operate as well.

Making the Grid Sing in Key

It might not be of a concern to you or I, but not all electricity is created equal - some electricity has poor power factor, some has excessive harmonic distortion.

When you're using electricity that isn't clean it means you use more energy to do the same amount of work. This is frequently a problem in oilfields. They are typically in remote locations at the end of the grid. They're the last to get the electricity and as a result they don't get the very best stuff.

The electricity the Enersaver produces is "hospital grade power" and stabilizes the grid around it.

"It actively cleans the grid. It makes everything run better around it. It reduces harmonic distortions on the grid and it improves the timing of the grid so everything runs as smooth as possible." says Gray.

"I come from 30 years in the power grid industry and this solves problems people have tried to solve for a long time of being both efficient and clean. Typically you only get one or the other. You can be more efficient but then your devices will create a lot of harmonic distortion on the grid. We are able to do both, maximally efficient and have almost no harmonic distortion so it's really good for the grid."

Like a good neighbor, the Enersaver is there.

The Numbers and the Potential

Currently there are only 30 or so Enersavers in the world. But Canadian Control Works has got big plans.

An average 100 horsepower jumpjack uses around 9,960 kilowatt hours a month, at eight cents a kilowatt hour that's almost $800 a month for a single pumpjack. With an Enersaver that same pumpjack would only use $672 worth of electricity a month (all numbers come from CCW trials).

With electricity being the single largest expense for a mature oilfield saving 15 per cent on your electricity costs is like manna from heaven. It doesn't matter whether the electricity is green or not, for oil field operators it's the other kind of green that matters.

Expansion is on CCW's mind and while their product costs more than a regular pumpjack controller, the additional cost is paid in about a year.

"The biggest market right now is California. They just have the most pumpjacks. Texas has three or four times the pumpjacks that Alberta does. But Alberta has been a great market for us; so will North Dakota, New Mexico.

These things make the most sense when you're putting in new wells because you can take credit for the opportunity cost of the stuff you don't put in. It's less expensive incrementally to put these in on a new installation than it is on a retrofit."

Things are looking up for the small company, they're in talks with large Italian inverter manufacturer Santerno help mass-manufacture and market the Enersaver. They have a distribution agreement with supplier Tarpon Energy Services and major oil companies like ConocoPhillips are kicking tires.

So you add it all up, the reduced power bills for oil companies, a better functioning grid, a pumpjack that doesn't have to be repaired as often and what do you get? It turns out we may have underestimated the simple pumpjack all along. As more and more oil companies feel the crunch when it comes to rising electricity prices, technology like this becomes ever more important to integrate into your portfolio.

As products like these become more popular and spread throughout the world grid operators and engineers are forced to figure out how to best manage a grid populated with small, decentralized generators. With the success of the Enersaver and other renewable energy and energy efficiency measures it makes it easier for other green technologies to access the grid. The better we integrate these alternative generators into the grid the sooner we decarbonize our electricity system.

It's a small step but an important one in regards to a green energy future.

Pumpjack Powerplants