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SS: Hello and welcome to the podcast by ONS and Lorn. My name is Sylvia Seres and our topic today is energy technology. My guest is Jan-Olaf Willums, a chairman and founder of a company called Zem; Zero Emissions Marine Solutions. Welcome.
JO: Thank you,
SS: Jan-Olaf. You're a serial entrepreneur and you've done some very interesting things in the early days with the oil industry. And now you're moving into oil, not now. You did A.I before people knew what A.I was and you did things with solar and now you're doing things with Zero emissions.
SS: And I'll ask you to talk more about your latest company in the rest of our podcast. But I would dearly love you to tell us about your journey and what drives you.
JO: OK. Well, originally, I'm a typical engineer that when you see a problem, you always look for solutions and you can't sleep until you find some kind of a solution that has happened there since I started in the U.S. and in Switzerland. When we were working on the electric cars called Th!nk, we had some very good understanding about what batteries could do and followed how the battery development was moving suddenly extremely fast. And it was actually the former CEO of DNV. And at that time, Anos Veritas said you should really look at applications in the main industry. I didn't really believe him until I really dug into it and found out there are many opportunities. And since then, we started as a first step as a consultant to shipping companies. So we had some models to find out how batteries would behave over time and how long they could last and what type of batteries could be there. So we were very liked consultants giving advice until one of the ship owners said, couldn't you stop telling everybody couldn't you just do it. So we said, well, let's do it. So we certainly get bit on some supply vessels and one. And since then, we have supplied about 12 large ships and smaller ships with battery systems.
SS: Super interesting. I want you to tell me a little bit about your time with Saga Petroleum.
JO: Oh, yeah,
JO: Well, I was actually writing a thesis at M.I.T. on oil or gas in China. And when I gave a presentation on that at the not in ONS, the Houston oil conference, people said, listen, that's interesting and something is happening in Norway. So one of the directors of Saga said, listen, you better start in Norway. So I came to Norway and I built an activity and we tried that time to export Norwegian technology to other countries, Norwegian oil technology they called the company, the joint venture Oil Decor, which was a combination between Saga and Hydro and the Veritas and the Norwegian contractors, many other activities.
SS: When you talk about technology, this is this is the stuff that involves all the offshore.
JO: Yes. Correct.
SS: Rig and related technology exploration and so on.
JO: Because we in Norway had just learned how to build only an expertise from A to Z. And we very much invited this first company to Vietnam and we were there with hydro and suddenly got our concession because people liked the experience of learning from scratch and then building something up. So there was a very interesting idea. But after a while, I realized that maybe there is something more than oil. And that's why it became more and more oriented on environmental issues.
SS: But you have to tell us a little bit. Well, you worked on A.I. in the Computas Expert Systems.
JO: Yes. We had a very good cooperation with Det Norske Veritas, who had created a software company. And they had one or two people who said there's something new called artificial intelligence. And then I am convinced that time there had to say, let's create a giant company. So we had a 50/50 company doing oil and gas focused artificial intelligence. The most famous project we had was getting a drill expert, a drill expert from Total who had some heart problems so he could not be on the field. He explained to us whatever he was doing, if something would happen. So we created an expert system for preventing oil blowouts. And Total tells us they have used ones even to prevent what they call a kick for a slip of the blowout. So it was really practical application of new technology in that time environmental issues.
SS: What time is this approximately?
JO: Oh, we’re talking about the late 80s,
SS: late 80s?
JO: The late 80s. Quite early and we had a very interesting experience. We went over to Xerox Parc. That was the only place where they had those huge machines. And they showed us something very interesting. They said something we call it a mouse was brand new. And they showed us how you could move on a black and white screen with a mouse, which we saw quite early.
SS: Yeah. These years were maybe one of the most explosive in a positive sense, growth years for Norway, and part of the growth is because we have these brilliant technologists like yourself who know how to solve extremely difficult problems. But then we were able to sell that technology to all the other oil companies that were looking for oil on our continental shelf. How hard was that? You know, from a small country to decide? Look, we have the best offshore technology in the world, use ours.
JO: It was not hard because coming to a country like we were in Tanzania, in different Asian countries. Norway was regarded as not a dangerous small country. So they liked very much that we talked about how to handle it. They also liked how we talk, how we build up our own policies. So I remember I got an email some years ago from the chairman of the state oil company in Surinam. And he said you gave a speech back then about how Norway had organized. We took that and we implemented that to create the national company of Surinam, which is a small state in Latin America. So the idea of telling stories about what you experienced in a simple way, it was extremely interesting and very fascinating that time, no problem at all to be regarded as a big oil major.
SS: But then you became a co-founder of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. This was long before everybody knew what an SDG is.
JO: It was long before that. But they were actually created, born and initiated by Grue Harlem in Brundtland. She arranged a conference in Bergen I think in 1990 where she said we really have to work much more together between industry, government, science, labor Unions and others. And it's interesting. It's the same theme I heard this morning actually at the conference. They have where the Global Compact is, this discussion of S.D.Gs. It's a cooperation. So she created the idea and I was asked if I could be called a ranger. There we created the first initiative called the Business Council for Sustainable Development. And then we merged that with the World Industry Council of our Environment, which I have. And they created this entity, which is today quite an important collection of business people trying to find practical solutions for the climate issue, among others.
SS: Are you surprised by that? You know, like now there is not one company, I think, with any respect for itself that doesn't have these SDG, some varying sustainability reporting. Are you surprised?
JO: A bit sad because it took such a long time. I think we thought there would be a quick solution. Everybody. We would agree on it. But it takes a while, takes a while, while in there, takes as it actually said this morning, it takes some dedicated leaders. That's what they're going to do.
SS: You were also involved in REC.. It's one of the most fascinating energy companies we have in this country.
JO: Yeah. I was. No, I was happy enough to be invited by our bureau, set to create a down small downstream company because you create the upstream away for a company and then be merged those two together to create the REC. That's also now close to 20, not quite 20 years ago. So I was under the water for seven years and we really had a great time of this growth and often that time right along with fantastic leaders who really built it up to be very successful until the Chinese came and then kind of ruined the market a little bit.
SS: Yeah, a lot of things happen when you have super rich states owners subsidizing things to move the market or shape the market. Tell us more about zero-emission Marine Systems Company. How does it work?
JO: Well, basically, we looked around at that time. I said, who has the best technology that they could adapt for ships? And they found out that there were one or two companies who were doing quite good systems, REC systems for solar and wind systems. And we went to them. I said, do you mind if we adapt that to the requirements of the marine sector? And as we are having more offices in the DNV, Seychelles headquarters, we had a good dialogue. And we also know the challenges which are being set by government certification agencies. So we later then through that, we first built the first supply vessel battery systems and then the brothers or that's a small shipyard making carbon fiber vessels that came to us and they said we have an idea to create a very different type of catamaran, but it has to be very safe because it has to be for 400 passengers. So we sat down with them and we developed a concept for batteries for the vision of the fjords, which is one of the most fascinating ships. And now we are already producing the third battery version for the third about vessels and more to come. So this idea of partnering with other pioneers was extremely fun.
SS: So there was one thing that people say shipping is that electrification is very difficult for the larger vessels because of the size and the weight of the battery. Are they underestimating the speed of changing batteries?
JO: Partly, yes. Because the costs are going down, continuously they are down and the effect of being better. But I think that when people think about electrification, they somehow confused sometimes with a fully electric ferry like the umpire or improvement of efficiency by batteries. The supply vessels stay. Are they still have these slower other types of a generation, but they keep that at the very standard optimal level and all variations are taken by that battery. And that means for the one we know most, though, that the Ithis V group, they have now reduced their fuel consumption by 30 percent because they can optimize the traditional engine and take all the variations by the battery. And I think that's the combination.
SS: Can I ask you one thing that I was always wondering about is. Are these developments also in the way that we charge these batteries? I mean, it could be some renewables simply by solar panels on the ships or wind or some way more
JO: That may be marginal. I think the most effective thing is to keep the traditional engines optimal or using full electric like the new color lines when they go into the harbour and out of the harbour, that they are then going electric. And then when they're outside, then they can charge the batteries again when they are in the open sea by the normal engine. But keeping the optimal level of efficiency for the traditional engine as good as possible, that's the big savings.
SS: So it has a huge effect on the emissions and environment harbors.
JO: Absolutely. Absolutely.
SS: So you're talking about other projects in energy technology about Zet Box and Zlink.
Could you tell us a little bit about this sandbox?
JO: We are trying to we have learned very much, partly by incorporating on smaller system with a company called Acassol in Germany who is doing bus batteries for Bolívar and others, and they realize that we can actually do that concept even smaller, making a standardized small unit box that can be easily put into smaller vessels, even in in other vehicles, other heavy duty vehicles, mining vehicles. So the idea is that we are trying to move the concept of modular battery systems, which don't require huge battery rooms, but which are smaller, better rooms in themselves and make that as a standardized nearly a lego type system, we can put them together. And that's a project that we have been working on the last few months. And that seems to be very interesting.
SS: And Zlink?
JO: Zlink is a sister company. We have been asked by many different German companies, including AON, if you could make energy efficiency in the transport sector better.
And we found out that the best way is not to just change the number of electric cars or changing existing electric cars, but also to reduce the number of cars. So we are developing a project there. With a number of sponsors to see how we can get transport more efficiently by combining car sharing, ride sharing, bike sharing and public transport into one system which again uses A.I for optimization. So it's back again to using the old technology which had developed fantastically now, since we left the artificial intelligence used systematically to make more efficient, as I heard this morning, a talk by a DNV GL. They said the best energy source is not to use the energy. So energy efficiency is the best energy source you can find
JO: That's saving money.
SS: We are running out of time. But I really have to ask you about regulations that enable development of all these new technologies. Do you think that we are being conservative in the way we open up regulations for this?
JO: No. I think it's important that there is a very close cooperation between government regulatory and agencies and technology providers so that the technology, as they advance very quickly, can quickly be adapted to a framework, because we want to be sure that the technology is safe and provides also the social benefit, not only technology benefits that works quite well in Norway. It was a little bit slow in the beginning when I was involved in Think. But now I think it works very well. And this becomes actually a good demonstration for other countries. How a very close cooperation between the regulators and the technology companies create solutions which actually fit quite that
SS: And are maybe one world leading.
JO: That's what the hope is. And we can again be listened to, be it 30 years ago in the oil industry.
SS: I want to ask you whether you are most proud to be Norwegian. You mentioned something to me like this. If this is it’s OK to fail here. It's OK to be too early. But I mean, you did many early moves.
JO: Yeah. And I think the idea to cooperate on some issues where you have a common belief we had in Think we had a fantastic team spirit, we really pulled all the same direction and created some very interesting electric car concepts that time a little bit too early. I think the idea is to discuss that open over the governments and then accept that you try the best thing. And that's why when you ask me also about the good quote, I had one mentor in the old days and he said he was the actually he was the chairman of Porsche. And he said in German, which is a nice wordplay. Nothing good happens unless you actually do it. And I think that for me was a very good side. Just try it and because if you're trying, something will happen. Maybe not exactly what was expected, but you start the process. And that is the quote which I would like to you to leave
SS: You. I asked you if there is a book you'd like to recommend. And you mentioned Thomas Friedman
JO: Yeah. Thomas Friedman was for me a very interesting book, actually, a very good read every year. And that was today. They were actually launched by Bay and then the Global Compact is a Global Opportunity Report. DMV had the idea together with others. Let's not only talk about risk, every risk is an opportunity. So today they're actually launching this year. And that's the fifth time this year's Global Opportunity Report was instead of something to risk. You say, well, there is a risk and there are many climate risks. Who can do something about it? And what is the business opportunity? And that's the right spirit.
SS: So we'll read Hot, Flat and Crowded by Friedman and then we'll look into the Global Opportunity Report by the M.D.G.L and Global Compact from the U.N. What do you think is the most important idea that we talked about.
JO: I think to get young people excited about it; it's worthwhile doing something about in the climate issue about generally environmental issue, especially the climate issue that's becoming quite urgent. And I see that the young people are getting more and more engaged in it. They're really demanding to the old guys, listen. You have to do something because it's my future. It's not your future that it's at stake.
SS: Jan-Olaf Willums, a serial entrepreneur and a serial hero, if you ask me, in Norwegian technology. Thank you so much for coming here and inspiring us to think new about opportunities in technology for environment.
JO: Thank you.
SS: Thank you for listening.
What are you doing at work?
Chairing some of the companies that I have launched in the last 10-15 years, such as ZEM and the Zero Emission Marine systems company.
What are the most important concepts in energy technology?
The electrification of the shipping and offshore sector. New battery technology allows new applications for energy storage that can reduce emissions radically.
Why is it exciting?
The development of new battery technologies and the rapidly lowering cost of battery storage opens incredible opportunities for greening the shipping industry.
What do you think are the most interesting controversies?
How to develop a balance between how to use new technology and the rules and regulations needed to ensure that it benefits the society, without limiting technology entrepreneurship.
Your own favourite projects in energy technology?
Zembox, a modular battery system that is so powerful that it can easily provide zero emission power to all means of transport.
Your other favourite examples of energy technology internationally and nationally?
Zetlink, a system that allows to integrate many means of transport into a seamless mobility chain, so that I can move things, goods or myself.
How do you usually explain energy technology?
For me, the key is to find new energy technologies that gives me most energy value with least emission and cost.
What do we do particularly well in Norway of this?
We are willing to try out something new, even if it has a good chance to fail. There are more and more technology-savvy young people that would like to try something new. And we have one of the best mobile data coverages in the world and no fear to use data technology in new ways.
A favourite energy technology quote?
Nothing good will happen unless you just do it.
Most important takeaway from our conversation?
Get young people enthusiastic in energy and climate issues.
Hot, Flat, and Crowded by Thomas L. Friedman