Geir Erik Samnøy: Energy addiction

Despite being a force for change there’s more to innovation than ‘disruptive technologies’, Geir Erik Samnøy, managing director and founder of Presentwater tells Stevie Knight.

“People need an innovation pathway they can trust,” he explains. “You need to know the systems will all work together, one block on top of another.”

It’s a philosophy underscored by more than a decade of cruise industry experience, much of it interesting - though not all of it easy.

Ten years ago, he points out, the world looked rather different. Certainly the price of oil made a simpler business case for inventive strategies: “I was managing three of the biggest cruise ships in the world – the Voyager Class – for Royal Caribbean but oil was rising; that resulted in a sharp focus on cost control. And that meant energy efficiency.”

Happily, this extended to covering new builds such as Freedom class and Oasis of the Seas: “As I had a foot in each department I could be part of the development and yet at the same time, test out the new technologies on existing ships”.

While not completely immersed in the details of the power plant he was still close enough to see how the various systems meshed, putting him in a prime position to explore different configurations. “We turned every stone in our search for efficiency,” he says, “especially from the two biggest heat consumers on board cruise ships – HVAC and water”. It was a worthwhile exercise as this greedy pair could account for as much as 10% of the overall fuel bill, translating into “hundreds of thousands of dollars” each year. The subject proved so absorbing that it resulted in “an addiction to the energy chase” that’s haunted Samnøy ever since.

But, he says, it was “a question from a naive source” that really made him challenge his central assumptions - not least being that he already had a full deck of answers. He admits (after a little prompting) it was actually a conversation with his wife that caused him to rethink and spurred him on to change his ideas – finally resulting in the founding of Presentwater.

This approach is distinctly novel: Samnøy’s concept reshapes and integrates the heat and water system in its entirety, right down to the ballasting. The result is a ‘hybrid’ installation that picks up seawater, treats it and puts it to work in a number of ways. This makes vessels “totally self-sufficient in potable water... eliminating water bunkering, oil-fired boiler burning and even ballast water treatment” he explains.

Turning around the rather traditional mindset that keeps all these systems onboard segregated has been a tricky business, but Presentwater has had some notable wins: the company’s Exergy systems are being installed on Hurtigruten’s polar expedition vessels, Roald Amundsen and Fridtjof Nansen as well as Costa Serena; “It might just end up as the cruise industry standard,” he adds.

Despite the excitement of such a novel idea, he’s not rushed to market, but has spent a while evolving the interlocking systems: “It’s taken several years to get here,” says Samnøy, adding there are “risks to every development” that might not be evident at the time. “If you are too quick on one decision, you might lose your investment on another... for example, going for early scrubber technology when you might also need NOx reduction.”

In fact, Samnøy admits he has held Presentwater back till he’s been sure of the ‘holistic view’. “You want to be as certain as possible that you won’t have to scrap the initiative you’ve already invested in, you want to know ‘this is the way forward’.” So, it’s incremental steps, if only to make sure that the development path isn’t rushing headlong into a dead-end.

But, as noted before, the only thing certain is change itself: “Of course, five years ago with the high oil price it was much easier to make the business case, now it’s far more difficult,” he says.

Still, that holistic approach may well have paid off. Although the boiler energy argument fell in importance, other elements grew “and water costs rose to become a central issue”. Certainly the promise of a clean, fresh, renewable source, created independent of engine loads is fast becoming a winner for the cruise industry, and at the same time it’s providing Presentwater with “an alternative technology to focus on”.

However, he underscores that “finding the right partner is important” and it’s not always down to money. “Sometimes you have to select your client carefully, as they will need to push against the industry inertia. The first movers in each segment need to be advocates for change. If you choose your partners on ‘business savvy’ alone, you won’t get the result you want.”

He adds: “That’s why we got involved with Hurtigruten... to come in at the right time, in the right place, with the right players, to drive the expedition cruise industry forward”.

Samnøy has also learned a few things about the harsher nature of business, but doesn’t believe that a few difficult experiences are reason to armour up with distrust or entirely back away from risk “although the balance of openness and cynicism is sometimes tricky to maintain,” he admits. But for him there’s no going back to the 9-to-5: the entrepreneurial spirit has taken hold and Samnøy reckons he’s “pretty much unemployable now”.

So, despite saying “that running a small company means you are like a white rabbit out in the jungle, hoping no one is going to turn on the lights”, he adds: “While you might well fail the first or second time, there’s a feeling about creating something yourself that means even if you fail, you’re going to try it again. And again.”


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