What was the inception of Otary and what role does it play in the larger context of energy transition in Europe?
Otary is a unique consortium of eight Belgian partners that built a center of excellence more than a decade ago for offshore wind projects in the Belgian North Sea. We have been part of the energy transition since the very beginning, pioneering the concept of offshore wind in Europe, even in times when this concept was met with a tad of skepticism. The whole venture started with a pilot project in Belgium and we evolved together with the technology that pushed us towards new accomplishments. We are currently working on projects in Belgium and France.
What are the main challenges when operating in the North Sea, and do the benefits outweigh them?
The meager 60 kilometers of shoreline, heavy traffic routes, natural conservation areas, fishing and dredging areas and military operations make the North Sea quite a busy playground. Add these to the sometimes-frail regulatory framework and you find yourself with quite a few challenges that need to be addressed. However, while it is more complicated to develop projects offshore, the wind potential is also higher.
As a first mover, we always had good support from the Belgian Government, up to the point where the value of offshore wind is now acknowledged by all parties involved. Economic growth (having financed more than 8 billion euro in the North Sea), a considerable number of new jobs and the prospect of having a positive impact by using clean but also local (in terms of assets and decision center) energy are some of the palpable advantages of this industry. We are on the brink of a new era and we must take advantage of all this potential and use it wisely, as we did decades ago with coal and nuclear power.
You handle a wide scope of actions (development, construction, financing, operations), which of these is the most difficult?
Years ago, we started with a small project in Belgium which we used as a learning ground for the future large-scale ventures that we're undertaking nowadays (both on the developer and the contractor side). Because knowledge is highly valuable, we always kept the know-how in-house and invested in a skillful team with the support of a local sponsors. Capital is abundant at the moment, but finding skilled workers has proved a challenging quest lately, definitely given the huge pipeline filled with offshore projects in Europe and beyond.
What are the ways in which you meet the world's increasing demand for clean energy?
Belgium is on the 6th place in the world, with 2,262 MW of offshore capacity with Otary ranked in the top 15 of global offshore wind operators (operating about one GW). As a major stakeholder, we feel the responsibility to deliver the best solutions to our country and its citizens. Nowadays, renewable energy is becoming increasingly important especially in the context of the war in Ukraine. During the North Sea Conference, the Ministries of Energy together with the European Commission have agreed to reach 65 GW in the near future (2030) and at least 150 GW by 2050, for which Belgium will triple its capacity to show its support for this important plan, in which we are eager to take part in.
It took us a decade to get to where we are now, but the REPowerEU program - similar to the Clean Energy Bill in the US - will only accelerate this transition.
And technology will bring us there. If right now a single wind turbine (of which we have 399 in the North Sea) is at 14 MW, it will surely surpass 20 MW in the following years (per unit), also on floating foundations, using higher capacity connecting cables. Projects are becoming more high-tech and innovative, especially regarding the efficiency of turbines, the use of data to become more knowledgeable, with VR as a handy tech tool, but also the increased dimensions of the turbines, (floating) foundations and electrical assets..
Do you think the world is in the position to meet all the ambitious targets of transitioning to clean energy in the near future?
Deadlines remain very important to turn vision into reality, as we saw with the 20-20-20 package in Europe that was the accelerator for transitioning to clean energy. For 2050 the ambitions are even higher, but I'm sure that if we stay on track and continue the green transition despite all global challenges, all the targets will be reached. We had to overcome the Covid-19 pandemic during our construction activities, and now we see again global disruption, but let’s stay focused on the target. We only experienced more reasons to transition to a sustainable, green future, grasping local assets. Despite the cost of innovation, green energy has a remarkable track record regarding cost reduction, so the only direction is upwards from here on. The secret is for the industry to remain sustainable and implement new technologies little by little because the rhythm of innovation is sometimes overwhelming.
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