OUR GREAT MINDS

by Tina Olivero

The Underwater World Is Advancing With Subsea Power Distribution

As we look at new energy solutions to save the planet, we are finding that technology, once again will save the day. It’s exciting times as we see new innovations developing to meet world energy demands.

At this stage of our energy history, the smartest thing we can do with oil and gas is to harness it to bridge us to the energy world. The fact remains, oil and gas are critical assets that will fuel us to a world with a new energy mix. We aren’t getting there without it.

Try to build a wind turbine without petroleum products. Try to erect a solar panel without fuel for transport trucks or petroleum for parts. It’s not going to happen. The new energy model of the next two decades will consist of oil, gas, solar, geothermal, and other sources: some of which we haven’t even thought of yet.

The world is smaller; we are globalizing; information is shared more readily; we are collaborating. All of this bodes well for new energy modalities coming into play.  

So the big question is not will we replace fossil fuels with solar energy; instead, it is, will new energy ‘technologies’ save us from both a climate and global energy crisis.

For energy advocates like ABB, Equinor, Total, and Chevron, they are betting that the answer is ‘yes.’ With a $100 million investment in a Joint Industry Project (JIP), these energy innovators, along with the research council of Norway, have embarked on an underwater expedition that is as exciting as man landing on the moon.

ABB SUBSEA INNOVATORS

JOINT INDUSTRY PROJECT (JIP) PARTNERS ON THE ABB SUBSEA POWER DISTRIBUTION SYSTEM

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UNDER PRESSURE

One of the strongest and potentially destructive forces on earth is pressure. In the underwater world, the deeper you go, the stronger that pressure becomes. Yet a free diver under hundreds of meters below the surface manages to escape bone-crushing, lung compressing, blood squeezing forces. They defy the laws of nature. As human beings, we challenge mother earth continuously. We put planes in the air and people out in space to advance our human experience. 

Water pressure, sea conditions, and insurmountable challenges don’t stop the greatest minds on earth from exploring thousands of meters below the surface. In the underwater world, ABB teams dove deeper, explored further, and now they are building the unthinkable.

For over 30 years, ABB has been a leading innovator in developing the next generation of subsea technologies. During that time, ABB has delivered variable-speed drive systems and subsea transformers to some of the most significant and most advanced offshore developments in the world.

VAASA, FINLAND

In Vaasa, Finland, together with ABB’s researchers, scientists, and engineers who have worked tirelessly behind the scenes to build subsea solutions for energy, I was one of 19 energy journalists chosen to write the story about it and joined ABB’s subsea power journey press tour. As the only Canadian, I set out for Vaasa, Finland, from Newfoundland, Canada, to write a turning point on the cusp of history. Twenty-four hours of travel later, I arrived in Vaasa via Newfoundland, Toronto, London and Helsinki. 

I felt as if Vaasa could have been a part of Newfoundland in the beginning. It was as if someone had separated the two adjoining pieces of the puzzle, and now they lay at opposite ends of the earth.

It even has very similar weather conditions to Newfoundland where animals, insects, foliage, and even the moss that grows on the rocks on the water’s edge, are the same. Here they also have cloudberries and salmon as primary staples. Because of its Northern hemisphere, by 4:00 in the afternoon, it is pitch black.

Vaasa is an energy city, much like St. John’s, Newfoundland. While others are thinking about it, Vaasa energy enthusiasts are acting on it. Vaasa and its surrounding areas are a land filled with hearty, determined, ingenious people. People who have overcome the challenges of the sky, the earth, and the ocean and have harnessed regional obscurity with technology that will bridge us to the future.

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 PRESS TOUR

Believing that operations on the seafloor would improve oil recovery rates for new offshore installations and extend the life of existing fields, ABB pioneers set out to do the impossible, and they have succeeded.

I met and interviewed many of the hands-on people that built the subsea system shallow water prototype. We were given a well-planned tour of the ABB subsea technology test site at the harbor front in Vassa.

Team members Tori Brown and Rita-Wei Fu took care of the team of the journalists that arrived from all over the world. The provided an exciting itinerary of briefings and interviews, as well as our own ABB winter industry coats and boot spikes for the outdoor site-tour ahead. It was exciting; we were the first journalists in the world to witness this energy milestone.

Vice President of Subsea Technology Programs for ABB, Svein Vatland started the press tour by welcoming us all to the event. He said, “This is like inviting you all to a house warming party. It’s the place we have been getting ready to show to you for the last number of years and we are excited to share it with you. ABB has become a leading supplier of electrification solutions that operate with little to no maintenance in a highly corrosive ocean environment at deep-sea depths. We are very proud of that.”  

Svein Vatland

It takes a tribe of great minds to build new power systems on the ocean floor. Seven years of planning, poking, prodding, and testing has been the work of the ABB subsea team, to get this right. Subsea power stations may remind you of something out of a sci-fi movie, except it’s not on another planet, it’s under the ocean. And it’s finally happening right here. 

EQUIPMENT & OPERATIONS

We were introduced to the critical elements, equipment, and procedures of the project. A lengthy development timeline dating back to 2013 marked the beginning of this technological process.  

The equipment for the project included subsea modules for controls, power distribution, and power conversion. Subsea products, including transformers, controllers, circuit breakers, and power cells, semiconductors, circuit boards, and capacitors, all come into play.

Testing facilities had to consider every aspect of the operation of the system from not only water pressures and compensation but also thermal performance, equipment reliability, connectivity considerations, materials compatibility, the flexibility of installations, processes, procedures, and, of course, safety.

With 3000 hours of testing completed, the ABB team has proven that the transmission of electrical power on the ocean floor, with a single cable system, is possible for up to 30 years, maintenance-free. This system will generate up to 100 megawatts of power, up to a distance 600 kilometers from shore, 3 kilometers below the surface: depths far below where most life on earth can survive. And yet they have done it. 

The project makes economic sense. Subsea power distribution systems will allow oil and gas companies the ability to increase higher recovery rates, reduce production costs, and harness deepwater production, especially in remote fields. Predicted savings for oil operators are upwards of $500 million in capital expenditures. 

This subsea solution bodes well for areas like offshore Newfoundland, where there are currently four world-class oil projects in operation, and yet 95% of the offshore oil and gas potential is unexplored.

ABB’s Joint Industry Project is slated to be fully operational within the next three years. It is a mind-blowing, future altering, game-changer for energy operations. With this success achieved, who knows what that might mean for other applications subsea.  I look into the future and imagine an underwater hotel powered by a subsea power distribution system. Whales are swimming by my window as I’m working on my computer 1000 meters below the surface.  

What do you imagine?

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IS ZERO EMISSIONS A POSSIBILITY SUBSEA?

After our tour of the Vaasa harbor front testing site, about sixty of us boarded the buses. We headed out to work and enjoyed the scenery of the UNESCO nature world heritage area of Kvarken, Finland.  

Here we were escorted to the famous Kalle’s Inn, where you can stay in chalets that look like something out of the movie the hobbit. 

Guests can overnight at Kalle’s Inn, staying in’ glass houses’ and experience a 180-degree view of the stars. You can witness the sea, sky, rocky islands, and northern lights from your bed. 

Kalle’s Inn is the place where I experienced many firsts. The first time I have had a world-famous Finnish hot sauna outside in the elements, which was like stepping back in time. The first time I tried Deer for supper, which seemed more natural than I imagined. It was also the first time I met world explorer and Guinness World record holder Eric Larsen and realized that freedom comes from a pioneering spirit.

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THE ABB TEAM

Per Erick Holsten

At Kalle’s Inn, we had the privilege of interviewing some of ABB’s top brass about the project.  Per Erik Holsten leads ABB’s Energy Industries business unit for North America. His view of the world we now live in, and the project they developed were enlightening.  “I have been involved in the industry since the 1980s up until now, which has been tremendous. Everyone is becoming more environmentally conscious, which is good. The mentality of the world and the holistic view of things is to be greener and cleaner. Creating environmentally friendly energy is key to us all. We are in an exciting time ensuring everyone on the planet has the power they need and, at the same time, that the energy mix is environmentally friendly. We want to ensure our subsea technology is a contributor to reducing emissions. With the subsea technology that we have developed, we can achieve the ultimate goal of ‘zero emissions.’ That is possible as our oil and gas production on the seafloor can be tied back to a renewable power source on shore. These are the possibilities of the system now and they will become more diverse in the future.  We have sustainable new energy solutions that are very exciting,” he said.

Joerg Schubert

Joerg Schubert is the Global Technology Manager of Energy Industries for ABB has spent 20 years in various roles with ABB. For the last three years, he’s been responsible for overseeing technology development. He said, “This project had phases of technical challenges which we had to overcome. The people solving those challenges over the years have been critical to our progress. The science and chemistry of our components working in oil, water, and under pressure have been interesting. The pooled intelligence of our people has taken us to success. Aggregating the knowledge needed to overcome challenges was what was required. We broke boundaries and limits that nobody in the world had achieved. At 3000 meters below the surface, this is a  revolutionizing project. I’m very proud to be a part of it.”

The full scope, potential, possibilities, and applications of this milestone are still to be determined. The future may hold a power mix that will enable us to have wind, solar, geothermal, and other sources of power at sea so that tiebacks to a land source may not be necessary. While we are not there yet, it is imaginable that someday we may have those options available to us.

ERIC LARSEN – WORLD RECORD HOLDING ADVENTURER

After a day of intricate details and technological profiling, we were privileged enough to have a dinner presentation by Eric Larsen. An extraordinary guest Eric is a polar enthusiast and extreme mountain climber. He shared his experiences of ‘snow, cold and ice’ and how he overcome the elements.

In 2010, Eric Larsen became the first person in history to complete expeditions to South Pole, North Pole, and the summit of Mount Everest in a continuous 365-day period. 

Not unlike creating a revolutionizing technology that will change the world, adventuring to the Poles and Everest hold challenges that have to be solved creatively… or you pay the highest price with your life. 

Eric sited one of Robert Service’s poems to explain his reasoning to embarking on pioneering experiences in some of the most treacherous places on the planet: 

The Call Of The Wild – by Robert Service

Have you gazed on naked grandeur
where there’s nothing else to gaze on,
Set pieces and drop-curtain scenes galore,
Big mountains heaved to heaven, which the blinding sunsets blazon,
Black canyons where the rapids rip and roar?
Have you swept the visioned valley
with the green stream streaking through it,
Searched the Vastness for a something you have lost?
Have you strung your soul to silence?
Then for God’s sake go and do it;
Hear the challenge, learn the lesson, pay the cost.
Have you wandered in the wilderness, the sagebrush desolation,
The bunch-grass levels where the cattle graze?
Have you whistled bits of rag-time at the end of all creation,
And learned to know the desert’s little ways?
Have you camped upon the foothills,
have you galloped o’er the ranges,
Have you roamed the arid sun-lands through and through?
Have you chummed up with the mesa?
Do you know its moods and changes?
Then listen to the Wild — it’s calling you.
Have you known the Great White Silence,
not a snow-gemmed twig aquiver?
(Eternal truths that shame our soothing lies).
Have you broken trail on snowshoes? mushed your huskies up the river,
Dared the unknown, led the way, and clutched the prize?
Have you marked the map’s void spaces, mingled with the mongrel races,
Felt the savage strength of brute in every thew?
And though grim as hell the worst is,
can you round it off with curses?
Then hearken to the Wild — it’s wanting you.
Have you suffered, starved and triumphed,
groveled down, yet grasped at glory,
Grown bigger in the bigness of the whole?
“Done things” just for the doing, letting babblers tell the story,
Seeing through the nice veneer the naked soul?
Have you seen God in His splendors,
heard the text that nature renders?
(You’ll never hear it in the family pew).
The simple things, the true things, the silent men who do things —
Then listen to the Wild — it’s calling you.
They have cradled you in custom,
they have primed you with their preaching,
They have soaked you in convention through and through;
They have put you in a showcase; you’re a credit to their teaching —
But can’t you hear the Wild? — it’s calling you.
Let us probe the silent places, let us seek what luck betide us; 
Let us journey to a lonely land I know.
There’s a whisper on the night-wind,
there’s a star agleam to guide us,
And the Wild is calling, calling… let us go.

Eric scaling the highest mountains and reaching the ends of the earth was much like building ABB’s energy structures deep below the ocean: the naked grandeur apparent, marking maps of void spaces, the wild is calling, calling…let us go.

The parallels are striking, the determination palpable.

THE FUTURE WE ARE LIVING INTO

With subsea innovation, oil and gas production will be more efficient and greener. With crewless operations on the ocean floor, people will be able to work on land and ultimately have a higher quality of life and be much safer. 

REMOTE CONTROL SYSTEMS WILL BE USED FOR SUBSEA POWER OPERATIONS

The ABB subsea power distribution system is predicted to make a 30% capital and operations saving over the 30-year lifespan of an oil field. So not only is it a technological feat, but it’s also economically sound. 

HEADED HOME

On my way home back to Newfoundland, I was a different person having had this experience. I could see possibilities for our energy future that I couldn’t see before. Isn’t that what a pioneering adventure is all about? 

On the flight from Helsinki to London, a man eyed my site-tour, ABB winter coat. He didn’t look at it, he glared at it and said, ‘Wow, I would give anything to have one of those coats, my wife is going on an expedition to the North Pole. Where can I get one?  Better understanding the true nature of a pioneering spirit, without hesitation, I gave my ABB coat to him for his wife’s pioneering adventures.

OUR GREAT MINDS: ABB Subsea team in Vaasa, Finland

I got an email from ABB and it said, “Would you like to come to Vaasa?” I said yes. I went. I learned, and I realized that thanks to the explorers, adventurers, inventors, and innovators like those of the ABB team and the oil companies involved in this collaborative Joint Industry Project, we have an entirely new world ahead of us. They are pioneering spirits whose outstanding work will give us a new energy future. 

I’m excited because the future I see is not only bold and brave; it’s sustainable. 

SOURCES, PICTURES & GRAPHICS: ABB, Equinor, Total, Eric Larsen

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