Addressing the challenges of offshore wind turbine installation and maintenance in high winds

Alain Bernard: Why offshore wind needs innovation

In an exclusive interview with High Wind Challenge, DEME Group CEO Alain Bernard, explains why innovation is needed for the offshore wind industry to advance and that true innovation will only happen with greater collaboration across the industry.

Belgian DEME Group is one of Europe’s largest marine engineering conglomerates. CEO Alain Bernard has seen it grow from a specialist dredging company into a highly diverse maritime business covering hydraulic projects, services to oil and gas companies, installation of offshore wind farms, environmental activities and more.

High Wind Challenge spoke to Alain Bernard about the main challenges and opportunities facing renewable energy.

There’s no doubt that Alain Bernard is a great believer in renewables, so it’s not surprising that the DEME Group has also focused on renewables in recent years. With strong roots in the maritime industry, based on its dredging history and capabilities, DEME has focused much of its attention and resources on renewable energy, in particular offshore wind.

Why do you see renewables as an opportunity?

In the beginning, it was a technological challenge developing solutions for renewable energy. But over the last years, I have become even more convinced that there is a huge opportunity in finding solutions for the major global challenges associated with reducing CO2 and other issues related to climate change. It’s a big issue, and also our politicians see it that way.

From the DEME Group’s perspective, we could see that our employees were motivated by challenges such as renewables. It’s much more than a technological challenge. If you want to find economical solutions for these kinds of problems, you need engineers, and we have 900 engineers in our company.

So finding viable solutions is key to DEME Group’s future?

It’s one of the keys. I’m a big believer in the future of renewables, especially offshore renewables. But we all have to make a huge effort to reduce the cost price. So I think that the offshore wind declaration signed by eleven major energy companies is a very positive move.

Reducing costs is a challenge, but perfectly feasible. This collaboration between these large players is great: everyone has to work together to get the price down.

What role does the DEME Group play in the development of renewables?

Our role is to innovate, create and find ever-smarter solutions. There are a lot of possibilities and we have a lot of ideas. But whatever the solution, it has to be affordable. Subsidies are commonplace, but they do not provide a good base for a profitable business. So we have to keep searching for competitive solutions in renewables.

We are working hard together with partners, and we’re investing a lot. We’re being disruptive, but we’re still only at 20 percent of our potential, so there’s still a lot of work to do.

How do you encourage innovation?

We develop a lot of ideas at the DEME Group. Every year, we have a competition in which we receive hundreds of ideas. We have a system for evaluating and select the best ideas, which includes developing a business case, where relevant.

An example of an innovation project is the Boom Lock, which is a technology for stabilising the hook during lifting of turbine components. Because we believe in its potential, we chose to fund its development and we got financial backing from the Flemish government.

This is just one example of how we are addressing market challenges. We are always working to develop vessels and technologies that will take the industry forward.

What are the major barriers to progress?

One of the barriers is the dependence on subsidies. Generating electricity from renewables is expensive because it is new technology. Subsidies can be funded by taxes, but no-one wants to pay more tax! People like the idea of renewables, but they don’t want to pay for it. This is a problem.

In Europe, we have the 2020 plan to achieve affordable energy. In order for Belgium to achieve this, the country needs to increase the megawatts generated offshore, which will cost each household around 40 Euro per year. Perhaps it doesn’t seem like a lot, but people still need to be convinced. We have to convince them that it’s better for the future of the country.

Another technological challenge the industry needs to overcome is electricity storage. Batteries are ineffective on a large scale and expensive. This will require significant innovation.

How can the industry work together more efficiently for the greater good?

At DEME, we have been very focused on approaching developments through partnerships. We do not want to be overly protective. If we invent something, we will make it available to interested parties. By introducing the technology, we are giving ourselves a head start, but we also intend to contribute to the industry. I believe this is what is needed to accelerate the development of offshore wind.

Competitive behaviour is a natural part of business. If we look at technologies to reduce weather downtime, for example, each supplier will claim it has the best system. That’s understandable. But in the end, the only thing that counts is the end price. The best solution is the one that will drive down costs, and we need fair competition to determine the best. May the best technology win!

Driving down costs

In the second part of the interview, Alain Bernard explains why DEME Group invests in innovation and how the company contributes to reducing offshore wind costs.

Like this post? Subscribe now and get notified about new content!