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'We must dare to think big, unconventional thoughts'

Early floating wind visionary Johan Sandberg, who spearheaded the iconic Win-Win project at DNV GL, is feeling increasingly 'bullish' about the once-experimental technology. As he takes up a new post at offshore oil & gas contracting giant Aker Solutions, he spoke with Darius Snieckus about Big Oil, technology breakthroughs and the 'blue economy'

The progress made by floating wind power in the last ten years – from one 2.3MW prototype off Norway to utility-scale projects under development in every major maritime region – has been an industrial success story with the technology field-proven and costs continuing to come down. And yet the sector still suffers in many investor and governmental circles for being classed an ‘experimental’ or ‘emerging’. As a long-standing advocate of floating wind, what do you think will truly launch the technology in the next few years into the mainstream alongside conventional offshore wind and other commercial-scale renewables?

I think floating wind, just like any other technology, will only be fully commercialised when its LCOE (levelised cost of energy) reaches grid parity and it can be regarded a subsidy-free source of power. But it has two advantages that keeps me bullish.

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First of all, onshore and bottom-fixed wind power have paved the way for floating [wind], proving that phenomenal cost reductions are not just a vague promise but a matter of fact - there are no reasons why floating should not follow the same – or an even steeper – cost compression curve as onshore and bottom-fixed wind. Secondly, the inherent advantages of floating turbines – enabling developments further from shore where the winds are stronger and steadier, providing access to markets that do not have shallow water [where bottom-fixed wind farms could be built], alleviating conflicts with other interests in the ocean space [such as shipping lanes and fishing zones] by being flexible in their installation and seabed-friendly and so on – are compelling.

Do you expect there will be a consolidation of platform designs – spar, semisubmersible and tension-leg platform (TLP), or rather a diversification of concepts with the addition to ‘non-oil & gas derived’ technologies, such as X1Wind’s PivotBuoy, W2Power’s twin-headed design and Saitec’s SATH concept?

These three basic designs [spar, semisub and TLP] have proven themselves for years in oil & gas, so it is safe to say that in the short term, at least spars and semisubs are lower-risk options, but all ‘outside the box’ thinking is very interesting. The important thing [in advancing novel platform designs] is to stay focused on costs and risks, and with time learnings will be made and boundaries will be pushed back.

I have learned not to judge too fast, what might seem like a crazy idea today can be fully accepted tomorrow. Less than a year ago I saw Greta Thunberg sitting alone in the rain outside the parliament in Stockholm, [Sweden,] and I felt sorry for her, thinking that her school-strike for the climate wouldn’t make much difference. Last week she met with [former US President] Barack Obama and he was the one looking starstruck – and this week she addressed the UN Climate Action Summit in New York … what a change!

The Win-Win (Wind power water-injection) project conceived of in 2014 [to advance floating wind turbine technology by field-proving units as power-plants for enhanced oil & gas recovery programme at mature offshore fields] has been key in opening many oil & gas companies’ minds to the role floating wind might play in their energy transition. But, at the same time, many observers have critiqued it as the ‘dirtification’ of wind. You spearheaded Win-Win and have shepherded it through its existence in DNV GL until recently. What is your perception of the value of the project now, not least in the context of the global climate crisis?

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The idea behind Win-Win was to try and create a commercial market for floating wind turbines, a catalyst for development. While there were high hopes back then for a faster progress than what we have seen, the project has still played a role in creating awareness among oil & gas operators about the opportunities of offshore wind. Today I think it is fair to say that the industry has ‘woken up’ and there is genuine interest from oil & gas operators to explore these ideas.

And it is no longer only water injection but also [floating wind-powered] gas compression, gas lifting, and other processes that could be suitable. I have always seen it as another way to replace a fossil fuel-driven system with a renewables-powered one, and this one has potential to achieve huge emission reductions. All major transitions have to be taken in steps, and here [with Win-Win] we both reduce emissions and also accelerate development of floating wind power technology.

What role to you see offshore oil & gas contractors such as Aker Solutions [which has taken a stake in US floating wind pioneer Principle Power] playing in accelerating the development of the floating wind power industry globally?

Stakeholders from the entire value chain of the oil & gas sector have supported offshore wind for many years, and it would have been a much more difficult journey without that experience. And as the industry now moves into deeper waters it is a new big step to go from bottom-fixed to floating turbines – almost as big as going from onshore to offshore. The floating substructure, turbine controls, mooring systems, dynamic cables, and installation present wholly new dimensions of complexity, where the experience from oil & gas again is very valuable.

But it is the combination of this experience, a ‘lean’ mindset throughout the value chain, and new, bold innovation that will drive down costs while keeping HSE [health, safety and environment] and investment risks at acceptable levels. In Aker Solutions we are looking to de-risk the commercial-scale projects and bring them forward faster through also taking an equity stake in projects. A concrete example of this is our ongoing participation in the consortium for the development of a floating wind farm off Humboldt Bay, in northern California. Together with partners [PPI, EDPR, HT Harvey & Associates and Herrera Environmental Consultants] , Aker Solutions were selected by the local utility company, Redwood Coast Energy Authority, to collaborate on this potential flagship project for California.

In a world of rising sea levels and changing climate, it is inescapable that the world’s oceans will be increasingly central to our future, both economically and societally. But the so-called blue economy as the World Bank has underlined in various reports – continues to face challenges attracting capital. How can the potential of the offshore wind sector – and floating wind in particular – be made plainer to governments, investors, industry, coastal communities and conservation agents so that we can see more ‘connected’ development between the various maritime industries, such as shipping, fisheries and so on?

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The ocean space is often a battleground between conflicting interests in the same area, and unfortunately very few seem to look instead at the opportunities of integrating different industry activities. Integration of different value chains can end up with a compromise making both parties feel worse off, while the combined value to society is actually much greater than each industry’s value on its own in that space.

But I do believe that we, the offshore wind industry, can drive innovation to integrate with other value chains. An obvious one to look at is aquaculture/fishing, where a new generation of vessels and workforce could create an interesting ‘fusion’ of renewables and fisheries, another one is fuel/hydrogen production for the shipping industry like what Aker Solutions did in Zeeds [Zero Emission Energy Distribution at Sea] project. Others could be collection of plastics from the sea, tourism or pumping water to restore oxygen to the dead seabed of the Baltic Sea. We need to dare to think big and unconventional thoughts.

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