The island of the stubborn

Being an innovator costs money, but long-term dedication to LNG and cutting-edge technology give Norwegian shipowners Eidesvik a green and commercial edge that could expand beyond the oil-rich swell of the North Sea.

“See that ferry – do you want to guess how old it is? When it was built?” says Lauritz Eidesvik, as he gazes down on the inlet far below one of his family firm’s vessels.

“1994?”

Eidesvik shakes his head. The ferry chugs past the giant hull of the Viking Poseidon and heads towards the small island community on Bømlo, where the company Eidesvik has been based for almost more than three decades.

“1975,” the communications & strategy vice president informs us, peering down from the helicopter pad, whose yellow outline echoes the ringed buoys of the small island community’s salmon farms, floating just a stone’s throw away from the vessel’s hull.

The unassuming passenger ferry and the ships Eidesvik owns may be worlds apart – it’s not just size but function – but the question of vessel life and ship turnover rate will resurface in conversation with the company’s CEO, Jan-Fredrik Meling. He will argue that the ship turnover rate is one of the things holding Norway back in its fight against emissions. While the government can rightly state that emissions from offshore supply vessels have been reduced – although the size of the fleet has also grown – ships live for decades, which means that failure to support innovative technology in the present has repercussions decades into the future.

Back on the ship, Lauritz sets off into the innards of the crewless subsea vessel, docked at home between assignments. Silent corridors with few signs of life add to the cinematic calm of an empty ship. For the uninitiated, its content is the stuff of sci-fi movies. In the hold, an off-duty ROV that has been further under the surface of the ocean than perhaps Captain Nemo himself. The outline of the moon pool, which allows the ROV’s journey straight through the hull on its 3,000 metre descent, lies closed. 

“The only depth limitation really for the ROV is the length of the cable,” Eidesvik explains. Later, on passing by the door to the mess room, where a large jar of pickles is eerily illuminated in the gloom, he adds, “If you don’t have good cooks on board, you’re setting yourself up for mutiny.”

While the Viking Poseidon rests, the remainder of the Eidesvik fleet is busy at work – 10 PSVs, five subsea and nine seismic vessels in total. Among the PSVs, it’s not just the norm-breaking Viking Energy, the first platform supply vessel (PSV) in the world to run on LNG, but also the newest additions. They include the Viking Lady, the product of a cooperation with Wärtsilä and Norwegian classification society DNV that saw the development of a hybrid energy system.

“When we started out with LNG, we never foresaw that it would lead us to batteries,” says Meling, a sincere and strict man with strong opinions on what needs to be done to reach a cleaner future, when we return to Eidesvik headquarters. “The future to a great extent will relate to how we manage energy, and how we store it. I envision tankers stacked with batteries charged from renewable energy sources heading to where they’re needed, the empty batteries acting as ballast as the ships return.”

But to understand where Eidesvik is heading, it’s important to look back to 1999 when the company first started talking about building a vessel fuelled with LNG. “DNV and the Norwegian Maritime Directorate’s attitude back then was very much ‘It’s impossible, it’s against the rules, you’re bothering us’,” Meling says. “They’re much better now.”

What he sees as a lack of foresight on the part of the authorites, not to mention the politicians, pops up repeatedly in the conversation with Meling, who has made his opinions known in public many times before. What irks him the most is the wishful thinking about a one-off solution, rather than incremental work towards less hydrocarbon reliance.

“I don’t come across as the absolute optimist when it comes to the authorities’ ability to tackle climate change. We burn fuel, that has limitations, and there are limited resources. It must make sense to utilise that fuel as efficiently as possible,” he says, underlining the tried and tested efficiency gains with LNG engines. “To be a little bit cynical, we aren’t doing this to save the world, we’re in business, but we believe that we can reduce costs for our customers and at the same time reduce emissions.”

A recent hiccup, however, has been the drop in oil prices, which has put oil on an even footing with gas, thus reducing financial incentives to convert. The current situation has dampened, but not killed, Meling’s gas enthusiasm. Today, five of Eidesvik’s 24 ships run on LNG. That’s almost half of the entire LNG-fuelled fleet of Norwegian PSVs in the North Sea. The small proportion bothers him. “Has LNG been a success in Norway? No, I don’t think so. But for us at Eidesvik it has been a success. It gives us a competitive edge and could allow us to extend globally, but if you look at the PSVs that have been built in Norway since, let’s take 2013, I don’t know how many PSVs have been built…”

“Three hundred plus,” Lauritz interjects.

“Yes, at least, and 11 of them are fuelled with LNG. Until a year ago, ship owners still ordered vessels fuelled by diesel, and those ships will operate for at least 30 years.”

Meling would like more political meddling, not less, pointing out that if you build an offshore rig, everything down to the toilet paper is regulated, but very few regulations exist for the logistics side of things.

Political initiatives have existed and worked in the past. Eidesvik’s original LNG work benefitted from a NOx reduction fund set up in the 1990s. NOx is more a quality-of-life question, however, rather than a climate one. On the day that Meling and Lauritz meet us, the local Stavanger newspaper carried an article about residents’ irritation over emissions from PSVs in the harbour. A harried official countered that people had to stop putting damp wood in their fireplaces, which also added to the haze.

“It’s the same in Bergen,” Meling points out. “We proposed years ago to build a floating, LNG-powered power plant to allow the PSVs to plug in rather than generate their own electricity with their engines and we got a research grant, but in the end the kilowatt-hour price acted as a deterrent,” he remembers. “The problem is that we in Norway are so used to low energy prices – four times lower than a German electricity bill – that the local government balked at the costs. Had we proposed this in, say, Hamburg, no one would have batted an eyelid at the price. The project came to nothing, yet Bergen’s land-based infrastructure cannot support these vessels. So nothing has happened.”

© 2018 Wärtsilä