Expediting the introduction of sustainable energy, smoothly phasing out fossil-fuel energy and achieving energy savings, while ensuring that national energy supplies remain secure, available and affordable: these are the shared aspirations that prompted ECN and TNO to join forces. ECN part of TNO has eight innovation programmes. Five questions and answers on ‘Towards a sustainable and reliable energy system’.
The energy transition must be expedited if the Paris climate targets are to be achieved. This will require technical, social and policy innovations. ECN part of TNO is taking on this challenge by collaborating with the Dutch business community, research institutes and governmental bodies to implement eight innovation programmes. Here Sjaak van Loo, programme development manager of ECN part of TNO, answers five questions about one of these programmes.
1. What is the goal of the ‘Towards a sustainable and reliable energy system’ programme?
“Because of the rapid growth of solar and wind power, the supply side of the energy system is changing. But when the sun isn’t shining and there’s not much wind, consumers and businesses still need energy on demand. This means we have to build a more flexible energy system. At the same time, the national energy system is becoming ever more entangled; for instance, electricity can be converted into hydrogen as an energy carrier, and electricity can be used to produce raw materials. With this programme we are helping businesses and governments to make future-proof choices in the integration of sustainable energy systems – so as to keep the energy system as a whole safe, reliable and affordable, now and during the energy transition.”
“We are developing the knowledge that will help companies, governments and other stakeholders to take sound and sustainable decisions.”
2. How do you intend to achieve that goal?
“Firstly, we are developing the knowledge needed to help companies, governments and other stakeholders to take sound decisions – for instance, on the design and management of local or regional energy systems. If you operate large-scale offshore wind farms, or local solar arrays, what is the best way to make available the electricity they produce to the power system when these energy sources fluctuate more than we are accustomed to with fossil-fuel sources? Which investments should you make, and which should you avoid making? Secondly, we are directing our efforts towards the development and implementation of technology for the conversion and storage of sustainable energy, as electricity, as other forms of energy carrier and as a raw material for industry. We are also developing information technology and regulatory frameworks as ways of balancing demand and supply. That, too, is an important way of creating desired flexibility.”
“In Power-to-X and Power-to-Heat, electricity is not just delivered to the grid but also converted into other forms of energy carrier such as hydrogen and heat”
3. Is this theoretical or practical research?
“It’s all about combining the two. We are developing the knowledge needed to get a clear picture of the overall consequences of the many separate developments taking place, so that future-proof decisions can then be made. But the technology has to be available, too, so we also focus on the technological development of flexibility options. Good examples are Power-to-X and Power-to-Heat, whereby electricity is not just delivered to the grid but also converted into other forms of energy carrier such as hydrogen and heat. Hydrogen can serve as an energy source for industry, but also as a fuel for buses or cars. Heat, for instance, can be stored underground and used to meet increased demand during the winter.”
4. Why is it so important to join forces in this way?
“In almost all of these projects we are working closely with industry, NGOs, governments and knowledge institutes. The North Sea Energy programme (see box) alone has twenty participants. In ECN part of TNO we are combining knowledge about the energy infrastructure and the possibilities of balancing demand and supply through digitalization with expertise on the production of sustainable energy, technologies for energy conversion and storage, and options for making industrial energy use more sustainable. Working together we can ensure the most comprehensive assessments, the most appropriate scenarios and the best directions for future technological development.”
“The first results will come soon. Take the development of gas-free districts and local heat distribution systems, for which we provided companies and governments with concrete advice”
5. When do you expect to get results?
“The first results will come through very quickly. Look at the development of gas-free districts and local heat distribution systems, for instance, for which we provided companies and governments with concrete advice. Or the development of large-scale central energy storage, and electricity storage ‘behind the meter’, that is to say, in domestic homes. These kinds of changes have a direct impact on the energy system. The programme has a five- to ten-year horizon, but it remains a working document. As the transition progresses, and the needs of our stakeholders change, we will adapt the content accordingly. After all, we all want the same thing: a completely sustainable energy system.”
FLEXNET and North Sea Energy
Between now and 2030 the demand for national power system flexibility will double, and after that it is set to triple: these are the findings of the Flexibility of the power system in the Netherlands (FLEXNET) project. This is an important outcome, because it reveals that in 2030 the existing system will be unable to deliver this flexibility unless some far-reaching modifications are made. In the ongoing North Sea Energy project, ECN part of TNO and other participants are combining the large-scale production of offshore wind energy with the existing infrastructure of the oil and gas industry. The aim is to transform electricity into other forms of energy carrier and to bring these onshore, thereby expediting the transition.