In this second of two exclusive interviews with High Wind Challenge, DEME Group CEO Alain Bernard explains why the company invests in innovation and how it contributes to reducing offshore wind costs.
Can you explain the DEME Group’s basis for diversification, particularly into offshore renewables?
The essence is our speciality within certain niches and that we aim to be the best in those niches. Our dredging background has given us knowhow within different areas, such as the seabed, sea conditions and other marine environment factors as well as the associated technologies. We have specialised further in related niches, and without losing the focus of our core knowhow, we have expanded our activities.
One of these niches is offshore wind, which we moved into from a deep knowledge of dredging and installation of foundations. And from offshore wind, we are moving into other activities related to offshore renewables such as wave and tidal energy. We focus on certain disciplines where we can add value and where we can be leaders in our sector. That means having the people, equipment, financing and legal capabilities – everything you need to execute these kind of activities.
How can the DEME Group profit from this diversification?
You can do a lot to achieve turnover, but you have to be profitable. You can be a first mover, but as soon as you start a new activity, others will follow. So you have to keep on innovating, expanding core competencies and the business, while still earning money.
We currently deliver more than average returns to our shareholders. A lot of it comes from new technologies, new inventions and disruptive ideas that generate mutual benefits. But we also have to be smarter than others and differentiate. That means that we have to innovate, be cheaper, and be more effective every day. We won’t sleep until we do!
Can you give an example of how DEME works with innovation?
One example came from one of our innovation competitions, where we encourage people to come up with ideas for new inventions and technologies.
One of our 900 engineers wanted to find a solution for installing wind turbines in high winds. Offshore wind is a ‘contradictio in terminis’. There’s more wind offshore than onshore, so generating electricity offshore is a logical thing. But, on the other hand, there can be too much wind or heavy seas that makes things difficult, for example operating the cranes during installation of turbines.
So a colleague had an idea: a robot to automate turbine component installation. That was a very smart idea and the Flemish government thought so, too. We put up 50 percent of the funding for development and the PMV (Flemish Investment Fund) put up the other 50 percent. This idea eventually became the Boom Lock system.
What potential does the Boom Lock have?
It is an example of how we are addressing the challenge of reducing the levelised cost of energy. Offshore wind is still relatively expensive, so we have to find solutions to reduce costs. Weather downtime during installation is one of the factors that drives up costs.
We should be able to perform installations in windy conditions and we should be able to work all year round. It is these sorts of limitations that contribute to the high costs of offshore wind energy. Boom Lock is an example of an innovative technology that can overcome these limitations and bring down costs.
We have developed a very successful prototype that we believe will have an impact. Perhaps in the future, it will be automated to an even greater degree, for example as a robot that won’t require a crane. But we’re not there yet.
For us, this goes part way to achieving the vision of reducing the cost price and making renewable energy more accessible to the world.
What will it take to improve the market’s uptake of Boom Lock?
In the end, the only thing that counts for the market is the cost price. If the Boom Lock can demonstrate that it can drive costs down, the market will see that and be willing to adopt it. Of course, there are other important advantages, too, such as safer working conditions. But it all comes down to the bottom line and here I think the Boom Lock will have an impact.
About Deme Group
With strong roots in the maritime industry, based on its dredging history and capabilities, Belgian DEME Group has put a lot of attention and resources towards renewable energy, and in particular offshore wind. DEME Group is one of Europe’s largest marine engineering conglomerates. CEO Alain Bernard has grown it 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.
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