Sea neighbours jointly boost transition

September 26, 2013 | 00:00

Sea neighbours jointly boost transition

The northern North Sea is one of Europe’s key energy regions. Surrounding regions are teaming up to bolster this position further. EER talks to initiator and director Gerrit van Werven of Energy Valley (northern Netherlands). ‘Together we have all the necessary expertise and infrastructure to kick start the transition to a sustainable system.’

'Power generation doesn’t end at the water’s edge – in fact that’s where it starts.'
(c) C.Francken - Flickr - Creative Commons
Director Gerrit van Werven of Energy Valley (northern Netherlands, including North Holland North) is a busy man. He’s keen to talk about the cooperation between his foundation and other North Sea regions, but he has less time for an interview than originally planned: Henk Kamp, the Dutch minister responsible for energy, has unexpectedly swung by the north for a visit. As a tireless advocate of a major regional energy industry, Van Werven can’t afford to miss that.

He’s certain to seize the opportunity to point out the importance of the energy sector to the north, which Energy Valley sees as its key focus. And not without reason: the northern part of The Netherlands boasts Europe’s largest gas reserves and all the transport, storage and enrichment expertise that go with that. Van der Werven will also point to the presence of six major power plants in the region (some still under construction) as well as the large number of wind turbines, the bio-ethanol plants being built and several internationally recognised research institutes.

The region’s strategic location is obviously key: ‘Via Delfzijl and Den Helder we have direct access to the energy-rich North Sea, and we share a border with Lower Saxony, Germany’s green power state’, says Van Werven. ‘That’s where Germany’s sustainable energy sector is concentrated.’ To realise its plans for a single regional energy cluster Energy Valley is particularly focussed on the countries around the North Sea -- although the emphasis actually lies less on national geography than on regions and areas boasting a strong energy sector. ‘There are quite a few, and the sea is what binds them together’, says Van Werven. ‘Power generation doesn’t end at the water’s edge – in fact that’s where it starts. Just look at all the offshore wind turbines and drilling rigs.’

Maintaining the balance

High time, then, for an energy partnership. It goes by the name of European North Sea Energy Alliance (ENSEA) – see panel 1. The inaugural meeting was held almost a year ago in the German town of Papenburg. ENSEA’s strength lies in combining the expertise and know-how specific to each of the member regions, enthuses Van Werven.

As energy is an issue that transcends national borders, the regions have teamed up to bundle the work of their combined government, commercial and research institutes
‘All the regions contribute their strengths and show their weaker points. Together we have all the necessary expertise, space and industrial power to develop a new system of energy.’ ENSEA’s approach is innovative in its shift of focus. Energy transition is traditionally held to mean the changeover from a reliance on fossil fuels to a completely sustainable system of power generation. That’s also ENSEA’s ultimate goal, says Van Werven, ‘but in the interim we’re aiming to maintain the balance, a balance between supply and demand. How to cope with peaks and troughs in wind and solar power, for example? That can only be achieved by integrating green power with fossil fuels and managing it as one single big energy system.’

Based on the idea that energy is an issue that transcends national borders, the regions have teamed up to bundle the work of their combined government, commercial and research institutes. The idea is to initiate additional integrated research on cross-border issues such as balancing energy, energy infrastructure, technology and innovation. The alliance was initiated by the non-profit organisation Energy Valley, based in the northern Netherlands. This organisation successfully lobbied Brussels last year for a 3 million euro subsidy within the seventh framework programme for research and innovation/technological development. The European Union granted the alliance the title ‘Region of Knowledge’ based on the combined development of knowledge and research activities worked out by research institutes, local and regional authorities and commercial partners.

Simultaneously all regions are working hard to find technical solutions designed to support the new system. The entire infrastructure is increasingly geared to this new future, says Van Werven. He points to the Energy Academy Europe (EAE), a new top institute in Energy Valley that combines education, research and innovation on energy. The Academy was initiated by Groningen University and Groningen’s Hanzehogeschool polytechnic and trains higher technical education and university students in all energy-related fields. The most important energy themes have been demarcated as gas (including biogas and green gas), energy of the future (such as wind and solar power), smart grids, energy efficiency and conservation, and carbon reduction.

Education and research

To emphasise the links with regional business there’s also an Energy College, where students with lower qualifications are trained for manual jobs in the sector. The two education programmes together attract some 3,000 students from across the world.

But the pursuit of knowledge is not only limited to these two education programmes. Van Werven sums up: ‘We have the internationally renowned Kema research institute; we lead the field in the thermo-chemical conversion of biomass; we’re developing new techniques to further boost the efficiency of natural gas production; we inject green gas into standard natural gas. There’s a huge energy industry emerging here.’ Investments of 25 billion euros are currently in the pipeline.

‘There’s still a lot of money in the old infrastructure, that’s why we’ve got to keep using it during the transition’
Most of those funds come from the business sector. In combination with research institutes and local government stimulus the sector is creating its own momentum, Van Werven says. That will happen for sure once the cooperation with the regions around the North Sea gathers pace. And it most certainly will, Van Werven predicts, for all the regions are basically grappling with the same problem: how do we strike a balance between supply and demand and what do we do with the old ‘fossil’ infrastructure that hasn’t yet been written off? ‘There’s still a lot of money in the old infrastructure and that’s why we’ve got to keep using it during the transition’, Van Werven says. ‘Accelerated writedowns would result in a massive destruction of capital. That’s why in oil exploration regions, for example, they’re looking whether it’s possible to re-use the foundations of drilling rigs for the placement of wind turbines.’

Closer to home, Van Werven believes there are huge advantages to be gained by reaching out over the river Eems to team up with neighbouring regions Lower Saxony and Bremen. Developments there are largely complementary to what’s happening in the ‘Dutch Valley’. ‘The potential is there to create a situation that’s mutually highly beneficial.’ But national politics frequently lags behind the local dynamic, Van Werven contends. Despite its strategic importance to power production, the region is still frequently treated by national government as a stepchild on the periphery, he believes. ‘National government has long regarded us as simply an extraction region rather than as a serious negotiating partner. They listen more to us in Lower Saxony than they do in The Hague.’

And then he’s off, in a bid to impress upon Minister Kamp the excellence of the regional energy sector. After all, the minister doesn’t come north often.

ENSEA is the acronym for European North Sea Energy Alliance, a partnership of four regions clustered around the North Sea. Its principal goal is to develop and share expertise in the field of energy transition and to translate its research findings into pragmatic solutions to bolster sustainability in regional energy sectors. ENSEA participants comprise the following regions, each with its own specific expertise:

  • Northern Netherlands (Energy Valley) - Production and transport of natural gas and electricity
  • Scotland (United Kingdom) - Gas and oil exploration and production
  • Wachstums-region Ems-Achse e.V (Germany) - Sustainable energy
  • Rogaland (Norway) - Clean energy delivery

Energy Valley was founded in 2003 as a network organisation to link up public and private partners active in the regional energy sector in the northern Netherlands. The non-profit organisation sees its mission as ‘to encourage, incite, facilitate and connect companies, knowledge institutes and government bodies to develop projects together and make real progress in clean, reliable and innovative energy.’

Energy Valley focuses on innovative energy technologies that are in line with national and international energy goals, while building on the strengths of the regional energy sector.

This sector is traditionally built around the biggest gas reserves in Europe, located in the area Energy Valley considers to be its heartland. The last decade or so has seen a strong upsurge in sustainable energy.

Energy Valley propagates an efficient transition to a new system of energy. Key aspects it mentions include: 

  1. Algae
  2. Energy expertise
  3. Energy transition parks
  4. Gas hub
  5. Green gas
  6. Green gas hubs
  7. Heat distribution networks
  8. Torre-faction
  9. Wind energy

Energy Valley is a strong advocate not only for the local energy industry in the northern Netherlands, but also for the wider region around the North Sea. It lobbies in Brussels and The Hague and seeks local partners in all the countries surrounding this energy-rich sea.

 

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