Andy Welch, P.E. Interview – September 2015

posted in: Blog, Meet The Experts | 0

Written By: Jess Phillips

JP: Let’s get to know you. Tell me about your professional background and how or why you got involved with OTE Corporation?

AW: I have a degree in mechanical engineering and got into the business of infrastructure doing cogeneration plants and worked all the way up to larger gas fired utility scale power plants. I started with OTE Corp as a consultant. After doing that work for a while, I realized that this is a company I wanted to become apart of more than just as a consultant. At that point, I became a full-time employee. I took over the position of Vice President of Project Management.

JP: What exactly does that role entail?

AW: Basically I coordinate the projects. I work with the senior management, the legal team, the engineering team, and any environmental or other consultants that we bring in. I make sure that everyone is coordinated and that we get to the right decisions by providing the information everyone needs. I also keep the schedule and monitoring the budget. I take ownership of the projects and make sure that everything’s done to make it become a reality.

On the other hand, I’m not the engineering expert on how to configure an OTEC plant like t Dr. Johnson.. I have to know when we need his engineering input and when he provides it, I make sure the rest of the team – let’s say the legal team who’s negotiating that contract- take that it all into account.

JP: I read that you have “over 25 years of experience” in developing power plants and large infrastructures. Tell me about those projects- were they typically “green” plants?

AW: I started with cogeneration plants, which are when you use local generation and use the waste heat to replace boilers to make an industrial facility more efficient in its operation. I moved from that to putting together large, highly efficient power plants. Those were up to several hundred megawatt output. With those, the idea was to take a newer technology that’s about 50% more efficient and replace the older inefficient technologies with clean-burning/ natural-gas burning plants that improve the overall fleet of electric generation. Also, I did projects that involved both wind turbine and solar-thermal technology. I have a wide-range of experience with energy technologies.

JP: Have you always been involved in or interested in Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion (OTEC) and what was it about the technology that attracted you?

AW: We’ve got Dr. Johnson and Dr. Oney involved and a good part of their careers have been studying OTEC. Conversely, before I started consulting several years ago, I’d never heard of this technology, but I immediately liked it.

Economically, it makes sense to use this renewable energy in our target markets, which are essentially developing island nations. It makes more sense for them because these are places where we’re not only providing them reliable energy, but we’re providing them independence from foreign sources of oil. Oil is not only problematic due to the airborne pollution it creates, but the volatility of fluctuating cost. Additionally, there’s a geo-political nature of oil use that most of these small nations would be better off not having to deal with.

dirty clean water andy welch quoteAdd to that the thing that stands out for OTEC compared to all the other generating technologies: the water aspect.

I’ve come to find out a lot about water and how it’s treated. When you consider the oceans and other sources- there is plenty of water in the world. But what we don’t have is clean water where we need it. That’s exactly what we can provide: we can provide clean water where they need it.

OTEC provides electricity and SWAC provides air conditioning. I joke that while it wasn’t that long ago that people lived without those two things, personally I can’t imagine life without them! We consider them a necessity, right?

The reality is that clean water actually is a necessity. Nothing is more important to a healthy society than clean water. You’ve got many nations that are providing clean water, but in a very expensive matter through desalination. That costs about 10 to 20 times what it costs for us here in the U.S.

To provide that through an eclectic generation that supports aquaculture and agriculture is very attractive. It’s more than a simple solution, it’s a grand solution.

JP: How does OTE Corporation stand out as a “renewable energy” company, and how does it differ from the competition? Having said that- do we have competition? Who is it?

AW: Foremost, we are cost-competitive with existing generation in our target market, making it so that we don’t require a large renewable premium. Because of the nature of our technology, we don’t really have a lot of competition.

There are many different energy technologies and solutions so society needs to take advantage of what works best for different areas. There are places where the wind resources are better, but it’s not true everywhere.

One of the difficulties in developing technologies such as solar and wind is they’re being put up in markets where they are not cost-competitive. You’re relying on government action and mandates to make those work and you’re at risk for the government changing its mind or preferring someone else to you. We don’t rely on the government to make us effective in our markets, so we don’t have to worry about who is today’s “favorite” technology.

Directly comparing OTEC to those technologies we are cost-competitive. Unlike wind or solar, OTEC is round the clock and full time where the others are weather dependent. We also don’t have the large land requirements of other renewable energies.

It’s very important to note that we offer a utility product that none of those other renewable technologies do: they don’t provide clean water or agricultural/aquaculture jobs that we provide.

What makes us stand out as a company is that we have put together a group with varied strengths and background to be able to conduct all parts of the business. Of course, that is anchored by the engineering team that with Dr. Johnson & Dr. Oney.

But what really makes us a different company is that we’re motivated and not just for our benefit. We can actually improve the world and leave a legacy. We’re not simply a “bottom-line effort.” It really is a belief that all these things that we’re doing are a positive impact on the world in which we live.

Andy Welch quote

JP: How do other renewable energy outputs compare to that of OTEC?

When we look at OTEC, we’re looking at something with less than 10 megawatts to start, with the idea of eventually building hundred megawatt plants. A 7-10 megawatt OTEC plant would be larger than, say a cogeneration plant typically is. When we’re talking about solar or wind: the size can be from that range to multiple times bigger depending on the amount of land available. The utility scale of gas fired plants are in the hundreds of megawatts.

JP: How does the cost of development compare to OTEC?

AW: There are two aspects. First: there’s the development, the concept of the project up until you finance, and the start of construction. Secondly, you’ve got the start of the construction through the life of the project.

Whatever the size of the plant, whatever the technology, there is a certain cost associated with it to develop. Often times, people want to make a project as large as possible because incrementally, it doesn’t cost much more to do larger plant than a smaller one.

The only area where OTEC and SWAC plants become more costly and more difficult is in that development phase when you have to determine the nature of the sea bottom in the area to find a place to put your pipes. You need to get to certain depths on the ocean floor. That’s going to cost you to put some ships off shore, some under-water drones, or remote operated vehicles down there and to take a look. That specifically is the only area where OTEC is a bit more costly in the development phase than other technologies.

JP: How do you determine whether the sea floor is prime? What are you resources?

AW: On our engineering team we have a lot of expertise. We have the PhD guys who know where the relatively accessible areas are. They’ve got that information that they’ve accumulated over the years. They know where there’s shallow water and deep water in our target area.

In order to come up with what it’s going to cost- because the length and location of the pipe is such a large part of our cost and installation- we need to go down and get specifics. Then we go to a company that would usually do some underwater research.

For example, for The Bahamas we had underwater research done with the same piece of equipment that later went out searching for the Malaysian Airliner that was lost at sea. They’re underwater autonomous vehicles that are programmed to go under the water like a drone, and they go a certain route, use sonar mapping, and come back to show what the underwater terrain looks like.

The best way I can describe the underwater terrain it is that it has the same peaks, plateaus, canyons, and cliffs as a mountainside. We map them offshore to see if we can put a pipe in a canyon that will get us down to the deepest water in the quickest way.

We’re starting with our own knowledge to where the best probable route and then we map out a grid. We need that to come up with a construction price and demonstrate to lenders who are financing the project that we have. That also helps us determine how long it’s going to take to build the project.

andy welch quote honolulu

JP: Are there any major roadblocks that you see when it comes to constructing on the ocean floor?

AW: It’s a special set of skills, which is why we bring in experts for this. Ironically we’ve learned a lot from the oil business. It’s from that experience of them putting pipelines in the water and knowing what the underwater terrain looks like that we’ve benefited.

It would be easier to lay a pipeline across a piece of land than it would be in the sea. Of course it would. That becomes a difficulty in understanding what those costs are. That’s why we bring a team together and that’s what makes us strong in doing this.

JP: How long does a project like this take?

AW: Construction alone could take 18-24 months and development can take 18-24 months as well, so typically starting development to completion would be 3-4 years.

Like with any project, you have to put together an environmental impact assessment and submit that. You have to get your contracts in line and do all the off-shore and maybe onshore routing work.

If it were just up to us and just the work we do, it would probably be inside of a year to get all that done and get to financing. What makes it take longer, is when you have to rely on someone else- government officials or banks, for example- to say “okay.” Sometimes it takes longer for them to get to their decision points.

JP: What is the major struggle you have when educating legislators and commissioners on the advantages of OTEC and SWAC and how do you overcome that struggle? What’s the primary messaging to get them on board?

AW: In a lot of ways our technology is easy. Firstly, everyone is fascinated by it. Secondly, it’s not difficult for them to see at the end of the day that it’s a great advantage. To get someone to the point of nodding “yes, this is great, and say “It’s something that we’d like to see” is fairly easy.

We don’t really face opposition, but natural uncertainty and hesitancy with regards to the time frame. When you tell someone that there about 36 months before going online, but we need the signature on this agreement today in order to make it happen 36 months from now. It becomes a little difficult because they just think “Oh, I’ll do it later.”

As far as telling the story, I have come across no one in my time with OTE Corporation that doesn’t think this is a great idea.

andy welch quote water hands

When you look at it, one of the great parts of its story is that normally you deal with air emissions, water use, visual impacts, and impacts on animal life. Here, we have virtually no impact on anything once we are in operation. On those other projects- wind and solar- as you’re going through and pushing the argument of net benefits, they look at the construction impacts but they’re an afterthought. It is the operational impacts people think, such as about wind turbines affecting the lives of birds, for example.

With OTEC, construction impacts are the only concern. Once you have the construction in place and the pipeline in place offshore and the facilities installed you have no further impact. The drawing of a little bit of water in the ocean when compared to the amount of water in the ocean, is an immeasurable impact.

Because it doesn’t have long-term impact, sometimes people dwell on the construction impact. What would be considered a minor thing for a wind farm is the only thing that they can look at for our project.

JP: What is your fundamental message to the “Average Joe” regarding OTEC, climate change, or fresh water production? If you could really drive home one point with our society, what would it be?

AW: I think what it comes down to is that we’re more and more reliable on electricity and air conditioning and that’s not going to become less so. We need to find ways to provide energy moving forward.

Finding the right solution for the right location is a big thing of what we do. We can help provide a better future of energy and provide opportunity often for a developing island nation, and give them independence from an energy perspective. We can help raise the standard of living for the people that live there. It really fits together. We’ve got the ability to provide clean energy, clean water, and the ability therefore to provide the keys to a healthy society.

Andy Welch quote on a wave