Ingvil Smines Tybring-Gjedde is a puzzle. She’s proud of her environmental credentials - but she’s had a career in the petroleum industry, and even represented it in the Norwegian government.
She’s entered the data center world as the CEO of Earth Wind & Power, a company that says it can help with the climate crisis. But EW&P offers fossil-powered data centers running on natural gas burnt at oil wells.
All that takes some explaining, but she says it all comes down to efficiency, getting off your high horse, and “looking at the facts.”
“I started out hating the [petroleum] industry,” she tells us over Zoom. “I was a professional climber, and I loved the outdoor life. I didn't want people to have any footprint. I was really eager to stop the oil and gas industry. I was on the outside, and I only saw the negative part of it.”
Climbing was how she started, and it’s clearly still in her bones. Each step of her career she’s found the next handhold, and tested it before transferring her weight.
As a climbing instructor, she taught soldiers “how to survive, how not to be taken out in avalanches, and how to rescue your colleagues.”
From there she got involved in rope access: “I was doing maintenance on bridges. Instead of using scaffolding, we said we can do it with ropes - and we can do it in like 10 minutes instead of building this scaffolding.”
“I started a company, called in Norwegian Ut-veg, It's directly translated as ‘a way out’, but a way out is also a way into something new, out of the house and into nature.”
At this point, her attention turned to oil - and she began working within the Norwegian oil industry, not against it.
Climbing onto oil rigs
Around 1990, Smines Tybring-Gjedde noticed something. Across the North Sea, oil rigs in the British oil fields were using climbers.
“There were actually British climbers on the British [continental] shelf,” she says, “and we thought, if they can do it on the British shelf, we should do it on the Norwegian shelf instead of scaffolding.”
She pioneered rope access on Norway’s oil rigs, starting with a job request to change some bolts on an onshore oil rig.
“I said yes, I can do it,” she tells us, but before she could take the job, she had to get approval. Statoil could not give her a permit for rope access on their oil rigs, “so I traveled to Scotland and got two certificates there.”
Back in Norway, she became a rope access entrepreneur: “I got a job painting the legs of a platform offshore. It was a test. So I climbed down to do the sandblasting and painting, and they used a scaffolding company on the other legs.
“And you know, my team was finished with the whole work before the scaffoldings were built. It was quite a nice job, we got a lot of money, and I still liked being a climber.”
After that, she alternated climbing mountains round the world, with earning money on oil rigs to fund the expeditions. Gradually her opinion of the industry changed.:
“I saw that the oil and gas industry was very eager to reduce its footprint in the environment. So, from not liking it at all, I had a huge transition. I saw that the people working there and the industry as a whole did have some very good morals or ethics - or the needs of doing a good job.”
Fueling global warming
In the big picture, there is plenty to dislike about Norwegian oil. The country has a large, nationalized petroleum industry, which is undeniably fuelling global warming. It supplies roughly two percent of the oil burnt worldwide.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s recent report, and subsequent studies have found that the only way to hit our climate change target of 1.5C global warming is to stop using fossil fuel. We must leave 60 percent of the world’s oil reserves in the ground (and 90 percent of the coal).
But the Norwegian government won’t be doing that, funded as it is from oil fields run by government-run Statoil.
The sector is expected to make the government 277 billion Krone ($30 billion) in 2020. For comparison, that’s roughly one-tenth of Norway’s GDP or $6,000 for each of the country’s five million population.
At home, Norway is very virtuous, with all its electricity coming from renewable sources. It’s making fast progress at electrifying its transport fleet too. But it’s the fourteenth largest oil exporter in the world (and the third largest gas exporter), with a climate change policy that was rated insufficient by Climate Action Tracker.
And far from calling a halt or slowing down, the new center-left government, which replaced the previous Conservative/Progress alliance, is actually planning to grow Norway’s oil industry.
Smines Tybring Gjedde sees a good side to the oil industry. It may be burning the planet, but Norway’s oil companies are concerned for marine life conservation, an area where it’s actually been “at the forefront,” she claims.
“When oil was found on the Norwegian shelf,” she says, “it was immediately put into laws and regulations that this new industry shouldn't destroy what the other industries were living off - and that was fisheries and shipping.
“It was completely new, but they said that we need to take care of the fisheries, the industries and the environment of the ocean, at the same time as developing the oil and gas industry in such a way that it is it will not destroy the living of the sea, and at the same time also develop the shipping industry to be contributors to the oil and gas industry.”
Norway was lucky to strike oil, she says, but it handled it well: “We are lucky to have oil, but it was not luck that made us put the oil to our pension fund. That was that was just good management and clever people.
“They were really looking years ahead,” she says. “I am having goosebumps now just talking about it. The oil and gas belong to the Norwegian people.”
Climbing into politics
In 2005, she began a traverse into politics. “I didn’t have any wishes to become a politician,” she told us, but she got involved in a campaign for fathers’ access to their children: “I was writing articles in the newspapers, because I was really into how fathers were treated when they divorced. In an equal country like Norway, dads and mums should have equal rights to see their children after they divorced.”
This was around the time she got re-acquainted with her childhood sweetheart, the far-right politician Christian Tybring-Gjedde. The two both have children from previous marriages, and married in 2009.
She also got in touch with Norway’s right-wing, anti-immigration Progress Party. Her husband Christian Tybring-Gjedde is on the extreme end of the party, never a Minister though he was its first (and, for a time its only) MP. He denies the existence of man-made climate change, and twice nominated Donald Trump for the Nobel Peace Prize.
We don’t mention her husband.
At the 2013 election, the Progress Party won more seats, becoming the third-largest party in the Norwegian Parliament, and formed a coalition government with the Conservative Party.
It was then that she got a phone call: “The prime minister called me and asked if I would consider to join them as a deputy minister in the ministry of petroleum and energy. Having been working there for 25 years, I thought, well, a politician with a background for what you should do in the ministry would be nice. So of course I accepted.”
Although not an elected member of parliament, she was appointed state secretary in the Ministry of Petroleum and Energy in 2015.
In 2019 she was appointed Minister of Public Security in the Ministry of Justice and Public Security, serving till the coalition disintegrated in 2020.
How to use flare gas
When her political career ended, she joined some former oil company executives to set up Earth Wind & Power, an energy company with the goal of using energy that would otherwise be wasted.
The company’s first target is oil rigs, at sea and on land, which “flare” natural gas, burning it off because it is considered unprofitable to transport and use. The practice has been banned in Norway from the start of its oil business in 1972, except in emergencies, so Norway pipes its gas to shore.
“It's like spaghetti on the ground underneath the water,” she says. “The Norwegian continental shelf is quite small, and we have a lot of activity all over it. So the gas pipes are all over. So either they put their gas into the gas pipes and sell it, or they pump it back down into the earth to increase oil recovery.”
Environmentalists would reject any idea of getting more oil out of the ground, but she thinks it’s good use of resources: “Just taking out a little bit of what the reservoir contains is poor resource management. You've done all the investments, so it's really important to get as much as you possibly can out of the reservoirs.”
As an oil minister, she found that other countries aren’t so scrupulous about using flare gas. Flying into oil-producing countries, she looked down and was shocked: “It looks like a birthday cake, you know, with all the flares, and I thought what a waste!”
Oil producers flare off their gas because they can’t find anything better to do with it, but the International Energy Agency wants this to change: “It's estimated by the IEA, that 30 percent of total global energy production was lost or wasted in 2021. And the World Bank has estimated that up to 150 billion cubic meters of gas is flared every year.”
That much gas, she says, “could power the continent of Africa, or the entire fleet of cars in Europe, and it's about 150 percent of what Norway exports every year. It’s poor management, and it’s really, really devastating for the environment.”
As well as this it’s a misuse of resources: “It's horrible, when we know that 60 percent of people across the African continent are without any access to electricity, and we are flaring all this gas. It's horrible.”
Earth Wind & Power wanted to fix this: “We tried to find solutions of how we can stop the flaring. How could you make it into a product that somebody needed?”
One idea was to bottle the flare gas, and distribute it in energy-poor areas. “One of the founders, his family has been trying to help African women create jobs. We thought that we could take the flare gas, put it into containers, give micro loans to the women and have them sell containers instead of burning coal and wood.”
Firewood is often collected by children, who can't go to school, she said: “So we could reduce flaring, give the women a job, and improve the health of women who die of cancer from making food at wooden ovens - and help their children go to school, and then come back to the villages and make industry and business for themselves.”
That idea failed: “We couldn't find a way to do it economically. That’s why nobody does it.”
A foothold in data
Next, the fledgling business picked up on the “megatrend” of digitization: “We know that in 2016, about one percent of the total electricity in the world was used by the data center industry - and there's an assumption that by 2025 or 2030, 20 percent of the total electricity utilization will go to the data center industry” [according to estimates by Huawei researcher Anders Andrae].
“This is happening when the world needs more and more energy. How can we do it? We need more energy in general, we need to have reduced emissions from the energy, and we need more and more energy for the digitalization of the world. And we also know that 150 billion cubic meters of gas is flared each year.”
If transporting the gas was a problem, she said, “maybe instead we could move the mountain to Mohammed, and put the data centers where the energy is produced.”
EW&P’s idea is to “take the flare gas, make electricity by it, have a cable and put it into the data centers we have made in forty-foot containers.”
The data centers themselves communicate over fiber if it’s available but “very often, if there’s no infrastructure in the rural areas where they are flaring, we can communicate or sell it or transport it by satellites. It's like a Kinder egg, with a lot of layers.”
Make no mistake, these data centers are run on fossil electricity. But they are reducing emissions compared with flaring the gas, she says: “We’re not just transferring the emissions from the flare gas to another industry, because by burning it as we do, we reduce the methane by approximately 100 percent and the NOx and VOCs [volatile organic compounds] by 98 percent.
“We’re not reducing the CO2 - not yet,” she says. “But we are looking into that as well. We might have a solution. We don't know yet, but we are really putting a lot of emphasis in finding a solution for that also.” It’s a nice aside - in 2016, as junior energy minister, she launched one of the world’s first full-scale carbon capture and storage (CCS) projects.
Even without CCS, she believes a data center run on flare gas can satisfy the definitions of environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG). because of the reduction in other GHGs and pollutants: “So we are also making an ESG data center service.”
Off-grid data centers also potentially reduce the need for generation capacity, she says. “When everything in society is to be electrified, you need more electricity at some times of the day, like eight o'clock in the morning and four o'clock in the evening. You have to make the grid bigger to take the peaks, and then you have to pay for all the grid capacity that you don't use during the rest of the day. Being outside the grid, using energy that is stranded, is a double positive effort on the environment.”
Why not leave it in the ground?
Making oil wells greener might sound like a good idea, but environmentalists would disagree. The science is clear: the world needs to stop oil producers in their tracks, and wean our infrastructure off fossil energy.
Using flare gas may make some oil wells more profitable, actually prolonging the use of oil. So it’s not surprising that oil companies seem to be welcoming the idea.
Surprisingly, there is a Net-Zero Producers Forum of oil-producing nations, which includes Norway, Canada, the USA, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. A truly net-zero oil industry would be an oxymoron, however. So the group is diverting attention to smaller issues like flaring.
“They have to stop the flaring. And Earth Wind & Power is the only solution. So they're really eager to talk to us, both to stop flaring, and to use the excess energy as much as we can.”
She has a few arguments for continuing with fossil fuels, starting with global equity. The idea of an easy, hard stop to fossil fuel exploitation is an easy illusion for the privileged world, she says: “I believe that it's really important for us in the Western world to look at the situation in for example, Africa, where 60 percent don’t have energy at all.
Sadly, that’s a line big oil companies often take, but GHGs emitted by poor people are just as deadly as those from the developed world. The real answer is to fund the development of sustainable energy in those countries - an issue the rich world failed to address at the recent COP26 climate conference.
She also deploys the “bridge” argument - that natural gas is less polluting than coal.
Africans burn a lot of coal, and export gas, she says: “If you change that coal and use gas instead, you reduce the emissions a lot, and it's much better energy efficiency to burn gas than coal. So that's a huge step.”
“Who are we to say that these people should not reduce their energy emissions by using gas instead of coal? I think it's really difficult to sit on my high horse here in Norway, warm, and with 98 percent renewables in my electricity system. I think it's really important to look at the facts and help.
“To have the energy transition to more renewables, you need something that can be a bridge,” she says. “And gas is really, really good at doing that. Especially in the African continent, I think we should applaud them for using gas instead of coal.”
Climbing into renewables
Norway already uses resources efficiently, so EW&P is looking abroad to find stranded resources to exploit: “Where they flare the most is in Africa, and Asia and the Middle East.”
And it’s also already operating in renewables as well: “We saw after a little while that there's excess energy in all kinds of energy production. It's in solar, it's in wind, it's on geothermal. And what's really good is that because we don't need a grid, we can be the birth giver to new renewable energy production.”
Providing a ready customer for power can help get renewable projects started in countries with less reliable grids, she says: “Say you're going to build a geothermal station. As long as you have a hole and power coming out of it, we can put our container on top of that. We can buy your energy so you can invest in building infrastructure which is really, really expensive. Developing a new renewable energy plant will be better economically with EW&P than without, because we can be off-takers of the energy immediately.”
“The cheapest way to develop more energy is in Africa is extra solar,” she says. “They have a huge possibility because it's cheap. But you need to make it economically viable. We can help them do that. They can install the solar panels, and start the solar firm, and we can help with the takeoff of that power, while they are building the grid or the mini-grid.
“Solar and wind are on track to become the cheapest form of energy in the coming years. And the IEA has estimated that 70 percent of the total investment in this space needs to occur in developing countries.”
The company will start with gas flares, and its first projects are coming in 2022, the CEO tells us: “We have started with some small projects in Africa, just to show that it's possible. We will have our first container in operation in March.”
EW&P is using a container developed by German efficient hardware company Cloud&Heat: “It’s highly energy efficient, with 30 percent better energy efficiency than the average - and we can also operate in temperatures from -30C to up to 50C.”
That reliability is important. Among other things, a liquid cooled container is easier to seal, to keep out salt sea water or desert sand: “When you place a container offshore, you don't want any breakage. You really need to double check everything. Cloud&Heat looks a very good solution.
“We’ve done feasibility studies with oil and gas offshore sites - and they concluded very successfully. And we are working with a world leader in wind and solar to provide integrated solutions for offshore renewables.”
Being a swing arm
EW&P is entering a contract for more than ten flare sites in Oman, and has done a pilot project to be part of a solar mini-grid in Uganda, she told us: “It was a very, very small unit, just to see that it's actually possible. In Africa, with 60 million people not having access to any form of energy, it is really, really important to have mini-grids that can contribute what the local society needs. But the possibility to pay for it is also very low, so you need to find solutions for that as well.”
Solar and wind farms sometimes make extra energy, and an EW&P micro data center can act as a “swing arm” to use that excess, or enable investment to put in more turbines or solar panels: “We can buy that energy, and in that way help the economy go around for renewable investment.”
But is a data center the best use of that electricity, we ask her. Given that the world needs more electricity to decarbonize society, wouldn’t it be better to store the energy for use elsewhere, instead of consuming it in data centers?
EW&P has looked into this but most solutions are too complex, says Smines Tybring-Gjedde. For instance, electrolysis could generate hydrogen, but this just installs a lot more hardware and leaves the energy company with the same problem: storage and transport of a different gas.
“The reason they are burning 150 billion cubic meters of gas is because nobody has found a solution. We have found the solution that we think is the best as per now. Because this is easy. And it's movable. And it's stackable. We don't leave any footprint - because when there's no gas left, or when they need more of the energy that we have been helping them have an off-take for, we can put our containers on the truck and go to the next station.“
But is this processing worth doing?
There’s another important question: the flare gas energy may be turned into processing, but what if the processing is itself wasted?
The Cloud&Heat container which EW&P is using was co-designed by BitFury, a leading light in Bitcoin and cryptocurrency mining hardware - a global industry which consumes more electricity than a sizable country, for no environmental benefit.
EW&P’s site includes a “Fact Center” with some bullish predictions, including a suggestion that blockchain may be running 20 percent of the global economic infrastructure by 2030 - even though most technology commentators acknowledge that the structure of blockchain makes it massively energy-hungry and unlikely to scale in this way.
But Smines Tybring-Gjedde says blockchain is just one of many options for using EW&P’s output.
“It depends on the site. What kind of interconnections are there? Are they high bandwidth, with a consistent power supply? Is it low bandwidth with a consistent power supply? Or is it low bandwidth with an inconsistent power supply?” she says. “It’s the circumstances that determine what’s possible.”
It’s not possible to say how much EW&P capacity will go to crypto mining, as it’s in an early stage: “It's feasibility studies, and it [depends on] the bandwidth, the power supply, and the circumstances. Some countries may ban Bitcoin. And some don't. So it's really impossible to say. We are a data center service company. And we will look at each site and offer what can be done on that site.”
In Africa, locally-powered data centers could be used for local clouds to enable digital sovereignty: “Cybersecurity is really, really important. And having your own cloud is highly interesting for several of our potential customers. Instead of buying an American cloud, you can produce your own, with your own energy produced in your own country. That is one of the services that we can provide.”
Where there’s no consistent connection, then different work would be done: “It could be blockchain, it could be long term storage, which doesn't require continuity of service. It could be general HPC for commercial industries, or CFD modeling or AI training.”
She goes on: “I think it's really important to use excess, ‘stranded’ energy. When there's low bandwidth and an inconsistent power supply, then you do operations that don’t need anything more than that. In that way, you don't interfere in the grid or use fiber that you don't need.”
In most cases, even remote sites have enough connectivity to be useful: “You can transport the data center services by satellites. We have 5G all over the world now.”
It’s been a long climb for Ingvil Smines Tybring-Gjedde. And given the contradiction between reducing emissions and enabling oil exploitation, her latest course looks like a tricky, overhanging rockface.
The EW&P project may be more efficient, it may reduce greenhouse gas, and it could give compute power to developing countries. But it’s still burning fossil fuel in a world that desperately needs to stop burning.
And that is a difficult ascent to negotiate.