Choose your preferred format
SS: Hello, and welcome to Lørn and ONS’s podcast.in our series about Energy Talks. My name is Silvija Seres. Our topic is energy, and my guest today is Jens Ulltveit Moe. He is the CEO of the energy corporation Umoe. Welcome, Jens.
JM: Good morning. I am pleased to be here.
SS: We are going to be talking about your new and old investments in the energy field, and I would say, your total refocusing on renewable. Before we get there, I would like you to say a few words about who Jens is.
JM: Jens is a Norwegian, and as such, extremely fortunate. I’ve had the great fortune of following the Norwegian oil miracle, both as a citizen and as a businessman, from the bottom and all the way up. And converting the money that I made there into renewables. In a way, my business career is very typical for Norway. I went to university in Norway and then to McKenzie in the US. I learned a lot abroad, and brought it back to Norway. And as I came back to Norway in the mid eighties I had an advantage with that international background, and could use that in the oil industry. That was great fun.
SS: So tell us a little bit about Umoe. How did you start it and how did you build it?
JM: I started Umoe 35 years ago. In 1984. And I invested 80.000 dollars on it. We were twelve employees, and we started out with tankers taking oil from offshore installations to the shore, to what was then Statoil. I bought more and more into the oil industry, both in Haugesund Mekaniske Verksted, where I built and maintained platforms, Umoe Oil and Gas. I went into Seismic PGS and Services Hareng, and by the year 2000 I had a quite substantial operation of all of the oil industry. And the money kept pouring in most of the time, but occasionally it also all went out. I was following the oil price. It was an exciting and quite wild ride.
SS: So tell us a little bit more about how one just starts an energy company. You said you had 80.000 dollars, that you bought some tankers and that you had twelve people. How does one do that? Or how did one do that? Maybe that time is over now?
JM: It was very easy to raise money in Norway at that time. There was plenty of money, and the tax rates were extremely high. The tax advantage of investing in tankers was huge, so I raised quite a lot of money on investment schemes. The main purpose was to save taxes, not to invest in tankers. I got the money that I invested in tankers, and it grew very nicely. And in a way, the combination of extremely high tax rates on individuals and an oil miracle outside of Norway, made it quite easy to start with the vessels. I had no money, but on short term I could buy quite a few ships at 100 million. I had about 40 million dollars a piece around that time, and new it costs (?) about a 100 million dollars a piece. So that grew quite nicely. Statoil and other companies on the Norwegian shore had great demand for transport, and I was right in the middle of it with Shuttle Tankers (?).
SS: You were basically very good at noticing a market opportunity, and perhaps also a hole in the market. And there was also a financial set up at that time, so this is also about reading economics and macroeconomics correctly. Do you think that there are similar opportunities today?
JM: Yes, there are. There are always opportunities. It’s just a matter of seeing them, and they do change over time. At that time the tax was very important for raising money. Today it isn’t so anymore. Norway has completely changed their tax. In my opinion the great opportunity today is to come with the big change on C02 emissions that is happening in Norway and Europe.Norway has made an agreement with the US, to reduce emissions with 40 percent by 2030.
SS: The Norwegian emissions?
JM: All of EU’s emissions shall be reduced, but Norway has reduced by 40 percent. And that’s an enormous change in society. Most people think that agreements on that has been made loads of times, and when you are near the deadline they change. That won’t work this time, because now it’s with the US and they have discipline. They will force countries to meet their obligations, and that will create big changes in Norwegian society.
SS: So basically it’s reducing carbon emissions, but also doing carbon capture and carbon related market activities?
JM: I think that it is not just energy. In (?) society for example, agriculture is a big abinder. Red Bee (?) is buildings which has made a part of emissions, and it’s also on the straight energy side.
SS: It’s a good “dugnad” that is required.
JM: Yes, and it has to be, because we do not have coal. We start with clean electricity, so for us to reduce by forty percent is way tougher than for Poland or Germany.
SS: Who are still very dependant on coal.
JM: That’s right. Germany has 44 percent coal, and to cut that by 20 is physically quite easy to do with gas, but it is very hard to do politically. That is the problem. In Norway we have to do fundamental changes in society in order to do that. With transportation, electric cars, ships, hydrogen and for example building sights need to be totally emission free and we need to have electric digging machines. In Umoe I have about 400 restaurants, and we see that there are big changes that have to be done regarding food waste. I never thought that food would be that important for emissions. It is in fact very important.
SS: Not just the cows?
JM: The cows bear red meat, of course, but one third of all food is wasted. That is a great deal of energy which is wasted, and could also be converted. Then also shifting from red meat to chicken, fish and so on. Who would have thought that that would be a big thing regarding an energy change?
SS: It’s a very complex problem, and it is very difficult to explain by purely monetary terms. I’m wondering if you have pivoted as a personal view on the world as well. There have been some interesting comments from you in the media. About what really seems like a change of heart. I have a feeling that it was a very obvious financial optimization problem before, while now it is more of a strategic, political, social and long term gain for you. You have been one of our most ambitious investors in silisium based, solar technology for long time, but how you are extremely focused on renewables now, is new to me.
JM: But not to me. 15 years ago, I read the IPCC's report on climate change.
SS: IPCC is?
JM: That’s a UN climate agency. They concluded that global warming was the biggest challenge to humanity, and that something had to be done.
SS: And the numbers were such that you believed them.
JM: The numbers were very convincing to me. At the time it was 60 % probability that it was created by humans, and now they say 95. Now the facts are extremely convincing. I was convinced and scared by this challenge to humanity. I also thought that a big change in the energy system, which is the backbone of any modern, industrial society, would give business opportunities. So I sold my oil assets, and decided to go to renewables. I thought that the change would come quite quickly. I was wrong.
SS: This is when you made all the investments in PV and Eidsvoll (?).
JM: Yes, I invested, first of all, in bioenergy and a big operation in Brazil, with sugar cane ethanol, which is what the cars in Brazil run on. I bought into a big forestry operation in Canada, where timber is the new replacement for cement. And I was quite interested in PV, but it was too early. The prices were extremely high, and I kept an eye on it with a plan to come in when the prices were more reasonable. That, of course, happened. I was quite excited when I first learned about PV. It is magical. It’s the closest thing we have to perpetuum mobile. The photons come from the sun, and it is absolutely free. They come in enormous numbers. Out of that you have a little paddle, and electricity coming out of it. Marginal costs are zero, it stays on and it’s free. It was expensive at that time, and what has happened since, is in terms of the climate. It’s magical. Solar power is now cheaper than coal. And that is a major achievement of human ingenuity.
SS: Human ingenuity, but also some very interesting state funding. I think China has been quite impressive in their way of focusing on some news, and they are obviously desperate to clean up their own mikro and bigger climate issues in all the cities, but what they now have done with solar is very interesting to me, both as a competitive act, but also as an efficiency act.
JM: What they have done in solar has been very important for humanity, but perfectly rotten for the European PV industry. German subsidies created this industry, and then China took over. They didn’t have many technical inventions, but they increased the scale enormously. The cost dropped, so China has taken that ball and has amazingly created competitive energy out of solar. And the cost just keeps dropping. The newest solar plants have a cost of ten cents.That’s below Norwegian hydropower. Two cent per kilowatt hour.
SS: And they can produce quite a lot now.
JM: Of course they can. The challenge here is not technical. It is political.
SS: Why is it political?
JM: Because it’s quite sensitive for loads of countries to have it. Imagine something like a hundred Sahara deserts covered with PV-panels which cover all the energy that we need in the world. Sahara is not a very safe place politically, and you will have the transmission cost as well, but my point is that even in Northern Europe, Netherlands and England, the PV is cheaper than any alternative power or any source of electricity.
SS: And there are quite many unused sea surfaces to do floating stuff. Do you believe in that?
JM: Very much so. I have a company called Ocean Sun which does exactly that. They have a floating surface where they place the panels, and it seems to work damn well. It’s an advantage that the water cools down the panels, which makes them more efficient.
SS: And I am sure that we will find very robust solutions for working with sea, weather and the transmission.
JM: Yes, and you have this with salmon racing which uses a lot of energy, currently diesel power. But with these PV’s, you manage to save all the emissions from the diesel generators. It’s very exciting.
SS: What are your most interesting projects? Can you say a couple of words about some concrete projects which you are fascinated by?
JM: I have the one in Brazil that I talked about.
SS: Tell us, why Brazil and why sugar canes?
JM: Sugar cane is a very efficient converter of sun power to floating energy. It’s at par with the photovoltaic, and Brazil has perfect conditions for it. There I can produce about a million liters of ethanol a day, and I save emissions in equivalent to about eleven percent of the Norwegian petrol driven cars.
SS: And this is renewable?
JM: Definitely. It reduces CO2 emissions by 70 percent, and the cars in Brazil are running on it. Technically it is interesting and very challenging from a agricultural point of view, which is really the high tech part of it. We can not let humans drive the tractors, for example, because they are not precise enough, so our tractors are all running on GPS robots. REC Silicon is quite exciting, and we make polysilicon which is the input factor on solar cells.
SS: REC is one of these fairytales from Norway in the space of renewable energy.
JM: It is indeed. It is really developed in Norway, based on Norwegian material and technology. We did that based on polysilicon, and then we developed a better process. Today we use less energy, less water, and consequently have much cheaper output of polysilicon than the competing processes. All if it is technology that is developed in Norway.
SS: I was fascinated by why it is from Norway, and someone was telling me that we have loads of really clean water there, wherever the first factories were. Somewhere up north. But what you are saying is that we have really good material technologies as well.
JM: We do. And that is basically an outcome of the cheap hydrolytic power, which is used to reducing the input sources to MGS and silicon products that Elkem had. Out of that came polysilicon, which we make with a cyline gas. That is the cleanest product on the face of the globe. It’s 99,9 niners clean. It’s a great achievement.
SS: And it works?
JM: Boy, does it work. It works wonderfully.
SS: You mentioned Elkem now, and I was sitting here and wondering why you aren’t the main investor in Bordgård. Companies like that, who take something which is very renewable and make something absolutely wonderful out of it, which the whole process industry of the world needs. There is something strong about that in Norway.
JM: Yes, it is. And Bordgård is in the forefront of using the output from the forest. And do so on a chemical field. I did not do that, because I had quite a big forest operation in Canada. I have talked to Bordgård about using the gas from the operation in Brazil, as an input to their process here. People are working quite hard now to see what else we can do with energy out of forestry, but it is quite challenging, since the trees are growing quite slowly in Norway. In one year in Brazil, I have 80 tons of biomass in one hectare, but in the Norwegian forest the same number is four tons. The difference is 20 times.
SS: I am thinking that you are a Norwegian, but with your studied and travels, you are able to see these strengths in Norway. The way you talk about the things that Norway is really good at, is almost like when a foreigner comes in and becomes enthralled by the country. I want to ask you if there is other stuff that we can exploit the same way in Norway? With you insider/outsider view? Like krill, algae and all this stuff that is in the sea. Are there ways of producing both food and energy out of this, that we haven’t explored well enough yet?
JM: You must basically look at the competitive position of this country. Which is the skills in it, and the exchange rate. Norway was very competitive in the nineties, and from 2000 till 2010, because the kroner was too valuable, and now it is competitive again. It’s very interesting, because you have everything from the sea, and a win par where we have a huge resource. From the point of view of climate change, it is to my mind, almost criminal not to utilize the oceans. Obviously there is a lot that can be done. I have biological growth on shore in Brazil, and I think the sea is a better environment for growing biological mass than what land is. That is obviously coming.
SS: Let’s do something fun about that. We are running out of time, but you have also mentioned nanotechnology related to solar. I want you to clarify one thing for me. Material technology is advanced chemistry in my mind. But it is more than that, right?
JM: Yes, it is. We have Sintef and IF in Norway. We have nanotechnology at the University of Oslo. I have one company where we are developing nanotechnology, and thinking that we will do a better solar cell by having galomarcenied nanowires on top of the noble cells. In this case we would get a 30 percent efficiency of it. That is a developing company, but it shows what you can do by advanced science in the renewable energy field. I have been quite impressed by what Norwegian researchers are doing, but I think they are somewhat slow in making it a commerce reality.
SS: It’s actually commercialization that we need to do?
JM: That’s right. I think it is a very important, challenging and interesting job to be done there.
SS: You mentioned a quite to me, which I think is wonderful. I’d like you to repeat it.
JM: I think it applied both to the attitude to climate change, and energy. I always loved it when Kane said that when facts change, I change my mind. What do you do? It seems to me that a lot of people have seen facts change on climate, and still do nothing. That is an absence of logical thinking, and also maybe shows an unwillingness to draw the conclusions from the obvious stuff that we see.
SS: It’s hard to change. Humans dislike it. This is also a problem for our politicians, because they run on programs created for the past, and not necessarily for the future. What do we do to help them adjust the politics to the new facts?
JM: The politician wants to be reelected, but to be reelected you have to live up to the expectations of the electorate. Half of the electorates couldn't care less about climate change and renewable energy. So we must start the change downwards and up. This basically means starting with young people, because they are the ones who will inherit the earth, or whatever is left when we have climate change coming. And their awareness is strong, so we must start there and get them to create a pressure upwards to the politicians to take action on climate.
SS: I say amen to that, Jens. And I think that the future should not be a party for those who are specially invited. Who have taken on the task to learn about it. I think we need to inspire everybody to have the skills and the opinions that are relevant, but also to have the mindset of that this still is worth doing. There is still a chance.
JM: And the appetite for adventure. And maybe it’s not important to have the cash to support it as well.
SS: Thank you so much for coming here to inspire us about energy, Jens Ulltveit Moe, the CEO of Umeo.
JM: Thank you.
SS: And thank you for listening.
What is the most important thing you do at work?
We work with renewable energy that replaces fossil fuels.
Why is it exciting?
It's exciting because we're saving the globe.
What do you think are the most interesting controversies?
The claim that the poorest people on the planet need energy, and then fossil is the salvation. They cannot be saved by what actually destroys their climate.
Your own projects in your technology?
Sugarcane ethanol in Brazil, nanotechnology for solar cells, and FBR polysilicon.
Your other favorite examples, internationally and nationally?
The success of offshore wind.
How do you usually explain your technology?
Efficient conversion of solar energy, solar cells, wind, water, and sugar cane.
What do we do uniquely well in Norway from this?
We are good at offshore wind power and materials technology.
A favorite future quote?
Technology has solved the renewable energy challenge, but the political system is unable to implement this solution.
Reports from the Adair Turner Energy Commission
BioenergySolar energyMain concepts in renewable energy