Midland, Texas

President and CEO L.D. Green has championed “a better mousetrap” for the natural gas industry in the form of electric compressors, with dynamic results.

An acronym for “Total Operations and Production Services,” TOPS LLC evolved out of a sole proprietorship forerunner. With a background as a diesel mechanic, Green incorporated the business in 1996 with a turnkey strategy.

“We started out with the concept of: ‘Drill the well, hand the keys to us, we’ll hook it up, we’ll put compression on it,'” says Green. “It got to where we had a lot of operations going one and were making the compressor companies look real good by keeping their compressors running. The companies we were working for started taking notice and said, ‘Why don’t you buy your own compressors and we’ll rent from you?'”

That led to TOPS moving into compressor rentals in 2000 with “five little gas compressors,” says Green. “We’ve been doing that ever since.”

A 2008 pivot to electric-driven compressors catalyzed growth. TOPS LLC partnered with a variable-frequency drive manufacturer soon thereafter to build an electric compressor to spec. The resulting product now can save operators nearly $2,500 per compressor per month with less than 2 percent downtime, versus about 5 percent for legacy technology.

“It’s just a better product, a better mousetrap,” says Green. “We can control temperatures with it, we can look at it remotely, we can start it, we can stop it under load. There’s not a blowdown event. Every time you have a blowdown on a gas-driven piece of equipment, that’s an event. Ours can start and stop under a load.”

Not only is downtime lower, so are emissions. “It’s a pretty startling figure of how much we’re actually saving our producers,” says Green. The brass tacks: Traditional gas-powered compressors emit nearly 2,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide a year. With electric compressors from TOPS, that number dips to zero.

And the company’s software and control system backs that up with real-time monitoring and data collection. “We have a room full of engineers — we call it our war room — and they’re monitoring our equipment 24/7. We can spot things before they happen,” says Green. “It’s a different world for us.”

“That kind of sets us apart, and we’ve moved and grown with that, and all the changes that we’ve made over the last 12 years to refine that,” says Green. “Now we have a product that’s state-of-the-art. All of the other manufacturers in that business are dipping their toe into what we’ve already done and had running the last eight or 10 years. All the bugs that we’ve worked out, they have to work out. We’re kind of ahead of the curve there.”

He adds, “We distance ourselves from the old way of doing things and we’re trying to get more into the ESG [environmental, social, and corporate governance] world. Working our way to a totally emission-free gas compressor is our goal.”

TOPS LLC retrofits legacy compressors at the company’s roughly 10,000-square-foot shop in Yukon, Oklahoma, where about 15 employees work, and also relies on a few outside retrofitters. The work involves replacing the internal combustion engine with a cleaner, quieter electric drive.

“We’re buying a lot of used equipment and retrofitting it to electric,” says Green. “Our rental fleet today is probably 95 percent electric, 5 percent engine-driven. We’re continuing to do that.”

Most of the company’s 103 employees are based out of the headquarters with 10,000 square feet of indoor space on 15 acres in Midland. The company also maintains a 30-employee facility in Carlsbad, New Mexico, with a small shop and two-acre yard that services customers in the Land of Enchantment.

In 2000, the company had two employees. It has more than 100 as of late 2021. “We’re always adding more people,” says Green.

And more compressors: TOPS LLC now owns about 1,000 compressors in all, up from “300 to 300 units” in 2019. The fleet’s total horsepower — 2,000 when rentals launched in 1998 — eclipsed 200,0000 in 2021, and Green expects to hit 250,000 by the end of 2022.

TOPS LLC has seen sustained growth, even as oil and gas hit a rough patch at the front end of the COVID-19 pandemic. “Last year was not good for the industry,” says Green. “Our business flourished. We grew through all of that and have continued to follow that path.”

Looking to 2022, he adds, “I think we’re poised for a banner year.”

Challenges: “Supply chain issues,” says Green. “We suffer like everybody else has.” Steel and component prices are higher, lead times are longer, and freight is costlier and less reliable. “You’ve just got to plan ahead,” he laughs. “There are no trucks.”

Opportunities: TOPS LLC remains focused on the Permian Basin. “It’s the greatest oilfield in the world,” says Green. “The income that you can make off these rentals is better here than anywhere else, so we’re going to stay focused here. We’ve had opportunities to go to South Texas and Oklahoma and some of the other shale plays. It just doesn’t make sense for us at this time.”

There’s also a big opportunity for companies like TOPS LLC that can help customers reduce emissions at the wellhead and back it up with real-time data. “The whole world’s going that way,” says Green. “We made the decision a long time ago to go there, and that’s what we’re working towards. We are trying to get to an emission-free compressor. . . . Everything that can emit gas is going to be captured somehow and put somewhere where they can sell it.”

Photos courtesy TOPS LLC

He adds, “With midstream going the way it is, they’re going the same way the producers are. They’re going to have to clean their act up. The old way of doing things, you put six or eight machines next to each other, that’s an event, so you’re going to have to do something about what you’re putting into the atmosphere. We’re hoping we can have an answer for them.”

Needs: “We’re always needing good people,” says Green. “I always say, ‘There’s four legs to every table.’ You’ve gotta have those four legs, and one of those legs is good people.”

He says he prefers to train in-house, because TOPS LLC differs from the status quo of diesel compressors. “We don’t do engines anymore. We don’t have to worry about engines anymore. We’re basically focused on these electric-driven machines, so you take the engine — with all of its inherent problems — out, and you bring in a pure compressor mechanic.”

Another need is to “just ride the wave,” adds Green. “The wave’s high right now, so we’re all on our surfboards and we’re riding the wave.”