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The North Sea pioneers

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Energy Global,

When it comes to the future of sustainable energy supply, renewables sectors still only go as far as speaking their good intentions and preparing roadmaps, future visions and policy ambitions.

The electrolyser units for hydrogen production will be placed on the top deck of the Q13a-A platform, with crane access.

These are often kept within the boundaries of the individual sectors: wind, gas, solar, and geothermal, with applications in power, industry built environments, mobility, or agriculture. In reality, the energy demand continues to increase and the growth of sustainable energy is barely keeping up. This is happening not only in the areas of the world with large economic growth, such as India, China and Africa, but also in North-West Europe. Price fluctuations due to a mismatch in the supply and demand of electricity will be even more challenging in the future, as countries require more energy and in particular, more electricity. Countries need to ensure the security of supply, however, many citizens do not want a wind turbine in their back yard, and solar parks face the problem of a lack of capacity on the regional grids. So how to move on from here, given the challenges facing renewable electricity? The answer is right next to the Netherlands: unlock the potential of the North Sea.

Europe has the ambition of moving towards a climate-neutral energy system that has to be reliable and affordable, and the North Sea will play a key role in achieving this. Reliability and affordability were initially achieved through North Sea oil and gas production, but this is now shifting increasingly towards renewable energy generated from offshore wind. However, the North Sea offers opportunities not only for large-scale wind energy but also for hydrogen production and underground CO2 storage.

Schematic explanation of the hydrogen production process from desalinated seawater. Oxygen is safely disposed of.

The North Sea is currently the most visible place of the energy transition. Offshore gas will still be an important component over the next few years but will be coming to an end over the next few decades as fields become depleted. At the same time, offshore wind is growing exponentially in all countries surrounding the North Sea. By 2030, offshore wind parks should be able to provide the Netherlands with 11.5 GW of clean but intermittent power. This intermittency is due to the variation of wind speed being too low or too high. There is also the question of whether the national grid can handle all of this renewable offshore energy. Although TenneT, the transport system operator for the Netherlands, is working hard to upgrade all infrastructure, the chances are that wind turbines will need to be curtailed around 2030, wasting extensive renewable energy.

As standalone sectors, both the electron-based and molecule-based parts of the energy system are facing challenges.

It is time to look closer and think smarter by integrating these two sectors. With this line of thinking, existing and producing platforms could be converting the surplus of renewable wind energy into green hydrogen, storing it in depleted gas fields, and transporting it when needed via the existing gas infrastructure to the onshore grid. Trunk pipelines can handle a higher volume of molecules at a lower transportation cost compared to power cables and are already in place. For example, a 36 in. trunk pipeline can handle more than 10 GW of pure hydrogen, meaning there is no need for extra cables, extra investments, or to stir up the subsurface with potential damage to the marine ecosystem. This requires working together across sectors towards integrated energy systems, linking the electrons and molecules. The North Sea Energy Program is a platform that brings all players in the offshore North Sea world together to combine knowledge and fast-forward projects through studies, research, pilots and demos.

The green hydrogen produced will be admixed with the oil and gas stream via the existing gas infrastructure.

Wise connections will reduce carbon emissions, reduce costs, make effective use of offshore space, preserve nature and accelerate the energy transition. Good co-operation and co-ordination will enable opportunities to be seized, put the North Sea on the map as a pioneering region for the European energy transition, and provide an example to other regions of the world.

To continue reading this article from Energy Global's Summer 2020 issue, click here.

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