Let’s harness oil and gas know-how to scale the energy transition

Guest Author
A helicopter flies over an offshore oil rig surrounded by water at sunset.
A helicopter flies over an offshore oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. Photo credit: Cavan Images via Getty Images.

When facing a new challenge, I often find myself thinking back to a helicopter ride I took to an oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico some 25 years ago.  

After a 45-minute flight from coastal Louisiana, I spotted the massive construction ship that would be my home for the next several weeks. I was there to help prepare the installation of a state-of-the-art offshore production platform in water 4,000 feet deep, an engineering undertaking rivaling that of building a spaceship.  

My role was to coordinate the assembly of the sixteen 4,000-foot-long tendons made from large diameter pipes and state-of-the-art connectors that would moor the platform to the seafloor. As a supervising engineer, I was one of only two women among the more than 200 professionals on board the construction vessel. 

Years and months of dedicated technology development and multidisciplinary engineering work had led to this moment, when we successfully built what was at the time one of the deepest oil and gas production platforms in the world.  

After my helicopter ride back to shore, I went onto many other engineering and business roles in the oil and gas industry. I learned technical excellence, disciplined engineering, risk management and stakeholder engagement are paramount to achieving commercial success in new technology ventures, especially those that require building new manufacturing plants and infrastructure.  

Now, after 30 years in oil and gas, I’m putting that knowledge to work advising climate tech startups.  

As a business fellow at Breakthrough Energy, I’ve spent the past year collaborating with a group of highly motivated startup CEOs and teams operating in the green steel, CO2 conversion chemicals and floating offshore wind sectors.  

Throughout this experience, I’ve come to appreciate the immense significance of my background in energy industry fundamentals, expertise in technology deployment and hands-on knowledge of complex capital projects gained from my previous work in the oil and gas sector. These skills are essential in successfully moving clean technologies from the laboratory to the market.  

Offshore floating wind technologies provide a perfect example of how oil and gas know-how can be applied to clean technologies.  

Offshore wind in the United States is projected to generate over 30 gigawatts (GW) of power, enough to power about 10 million homes, by 2030. To achieve this ambitious goal, successful installation of large-scale wind farms in deeper water offshore is essential. Each state-of-the-art turbine reaches 850 feet above the sea surface (nearly three times the height of the Statue of Liberty), with blades 380 feet long. The size of the floating foundation for each high-capacity wind turbine is similar to that of a deep-water oil and gas production platform.  

In oil and gas deep water operations, each new field needs just one production platform. A 1 GW commercial wind farm requires 60 to 70 floating foundations to be fabricated, assembled, transported and installed.  

To address these challenges, Aikido Technologies, a floating wind startup company I’m advising, is spearheading disruptive “self-erecting” floating wind platforms aimed at streamlining the manufacturing, assembly and installation of floating wind foundations to build out wind farms quickly at low cost. 

Leveraging my experiences and network in the offshore sector, I am working with the team to craft business models, refine value propositions, assess the Engineering, Procurement, Construction and Installation (EPCI, in offshore lingo) landscape and establish a supply chain strategy.  

Drawing upon my energy sector engineering and business expertise, I am poised to play a pivotal role in the scaling up and commercialization of climate technology. I hope my fellow colleagues from the oil and gas industry will join me on this journey.  

Indeed, I’m facing a new challenge today — we all are — building out the technologies we need to tackle climate change. Hopefully, in a few years’ time, I’ll be able to ponder that challenge while taking a helicopter out to a new offshore wind farm. 

Editor’s note: Jane Zhang is a participant in the Fellows Program at Breakthrough Energy, which also supports Cipher.