“There is always talk about how technology is driving the global energy transition, but it is technology and people,” Wei Cai emphasises.
Technip Energies’ new chief technology officer, who came into the job nine months ago after 18 years with GE, finishing as head of the US giant’s Energy Transformation Technology division, has already seen order intake from contracts in its ‘low carbon’ technology businesses grow five-fold from last year. “This is just the start,” she adds.
The far-reaching changes reverberating through one-time oil industry stalwart Technip Energies – a “molecule company that is now also an electron company” – are, she says, speaking to Recharge, clearly reflective of “how not just the energy sector but every industrial sector is transforming massively now”.
“We saw contracts from energy transition projects – low-carbon energy, hydrogen, carbon capture utilisation and storage [CCUS], offshore wind energy and downstream [e-chemicals and e-fuels] – that will total over €1bn ($988m) this year,” she states. “That might not seem like that much at first, but when you compare it to , when this was €200m – that’s a lot of growth.”
Cai highlights the “transformative” evolution of Technip Energies in recent years that is shape-shifting the contractor “from an engineering company with some technology to now one that in the next ten years or even faster will transition into being a technology company with a strong engineering capability”.
“But much as our ‘new’ EPC [engineering, procurement, construction] identity is about taking ideas from pilot to product to project…. we are light on the physical asset but what we do have a lot of is human intelligence. It is our biggest asset. We cherish that.”
The technology chief says her career to this point has been increasingly focused on “shaping energy transition strategy through technical and economical assessments” – and, again, “that means ‘people’.
Not just the energy sector but every industrial sector is transforming massively now
“We are always thinking of how our people can flourish in the energy transition space – and that starts with recruitment,” she says. “I think graduates see us not as a traditional oil & gas contractor – and that’s attractive [to them],” she says, noting the 50:50 gender policy for new hires, with a total of over 300 engineers being taken on alone this year.
But Technip Energies, she continues, is also concentrating on everything from “reskilling [existing engineers] to train but also so as not to lose knowledge [if these employees left the company or sector]… all the way to new ‘leadership’ programmes so we can nurture the leaders of the future, who will need to be differently skilled than those in senior roles [in the energy industry] today”.
Among the “pillar” technologies that Technip Energies is going to throw its weight behind as its transition accelerates are low-carbon LNG (liquefied natural gas), ‘clean’ hydrogen, CCUS, green fuels and chemicals, and offshore and floating wind.
The last of these – floating wind – will, in fact, be a reconnection to an earlier incarnation of the contractor that (as Technip) built the spar for the world first floating wind unit, the Hywind Demo, in 2008 and also spearheaded an innovative vertical axis design as part of the pioneering VertiWind project.
Cai says the contractor is “returning to the space” with renewed intent. She points to the progress on Technip Energies' in-house INO15 semisubmersible platform concept for 15MW-class turbines, as well recent work on lead-off engineering for the platforms for the giant Equinor-led 800MW Firefly deepwater project off South Korea – currently on track to be the world’s largest sector array – as emblematic of the contractor’s “very ambitious” view of floating wind.
“This is going to be the world’s biggest [floating wind array when it comes online in 2027], so that is a ‘product’ already from this ambition. But we are also investing in the next-generation technologies in this space too”, Cai states, citing the X1 Wind PivotBuoy, which the contractor took at 16.3% stake in earlier this year.
“This is very important in developing new technologies and new ways of collaborating – piloting. And governments, including the US through the DOE [Department of Energy], are suddenly putting a lot of incentive on these [technology testing projects].
“So, there is a question there of how we can help from demonstration [of floating wind technologies] through to serial production.”
Far ‘downstream’ in Technip Energies portfolio but in an area “close to revolution”, Cai – whose BSc was in chemistry at Hunan University in China – flags green chemicals, e-fuels and low carbon feedstocks as “very exciting” to the contractor’s future expansion.
Working with Shell Catalysts & Technologies, she notes, the contractor has been co-developing a carbon capture technology called Cansolv via a demonstrator project at Fortum’s Oslo Varme waste-to-energy plant, which has the potential to sequester 400,000 tonnes CO2 a year – equivalent to the emissions from 200,000 cars.
“Basically, we have long been a ‘molecule’ company. If you look at the future energy value chain, the nature of that [molecule] is changing, feedstock is changing from fossil [derived] to bio[energy],” Cai states.
“We are building from new ‘small’ [ie low molecular weight] molecules now – green and blue hydrogen, carbon captured from waste-streams or from the air [in direct air capture technology] and so on – for the chains that will feed into new carbon value chain.”
“The challenges [presented by the energy transition] – they are a kind of ‘growing pains’ and that is about growing new business, developing new technologies, building complex projects with different partners,” Cai concludes. “At the same time, it is all an opportunity for us, a problem to be solved with better solutions that we have had in the past.”
Moved by the spirit of experimentation in the wider potential for the company in the ‘downstream’ energy transition, Technip Energies partnered with Swiss sporting goods manufacturer On to devise a running shoe that was “made from CO2”.
The design, called CloudPrime, uses carbon emissions as a “raw material” for the trainer’s mid-sole, replacing the petroleum product normally used with regenerated ethylene vinyl acetate foam, a ‘feedstock’ that could be adapted for other elements of future model of the shoe.
On’s co-founder Caspar Coppetti said: “Five years ago, this was barely a dream. Imagine what can happen in the future as we unlock the potential of alternative carbon sources with further research and in collaboration with the best partners.”
Technip Energies, which worked with next-generation engineering house LanzaTech and plastic specialist Borealis, contributed its ‘Hummingbird’ bio-ethylene production technology to the On shoe manufacturing process.
On is currently collaborating with circular start-up Novoloop on the trainer’s outsole, employing the world’s first chemically upcycled TPU (thermoplastic polyurethane) from post-consumer plastic waste.