future view

Reliable and affordable energy supply in 2050: TNO answers questions

27 July 2020 • 6 min reading time

We are on the way to a fully sustainable energy supply by 2050. In ten years’ time, 2030, the first major goals should already have been achieved. This energy transition will bring about major technological, economic and social changes. What role does TNO play in this? Sjaak van Loo, energy expert at TNO, answers a number of topical questions.

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What is an affordable, reliable and sustainable energy system?

By 2050, our country must have a fully sustainable energy supply. We will no longer use fossil sources such as oil, coal and gas. Instead, we will generate energy from wind and the sun and use biomass and geothermal energy. That’s a good image of the future, but this new energy system must be sustainable and clean as well as reliable and affordable. In other words: energy must always be available to everyone in the right form at an acceptable price. This is why TNO is not only working on technological innovations to realise the sustainable energy system but also focusing on social innovation for a fair system.

We look at what innovations are needed from this broad perspective

What is system integration and why is it necessary?

The integration of energy systems is nothing new. However, everything is still demand-driven. If there is a peak in demand, a power station ‘simply’ switches up a gear. This will be a lot more complicated in the future because the supply of (mainly) solar and wind energy is highly variable and regularly limited within a sustainable system. We’re also going from a few power stations to a large number of different sources that supply energy, from offshore wind farms to solar panels on your roof or the battery of your electric car. This requires a completely different means of control.

All these separate systems need to be integrated and properly controlled in order to keep supply and demand in balance. Furthermore, electricity will be used in a sustainable energy system by first converting it into another energy carrier such as hydrogen. This will enable the integration of sustainable generation and usage in industry and mobility. TNO has knowledge of all of the technical aspects that play a role here and oversees the entire process. We look at what innovations are needed from this broad perspective.

How important is system integration to the energy transition?

The two are inextricably linked. The simple picture is currently gas and electricity being supplied from a fossil-fired power station to consumers and businesses by grid operators. To this end, there is an electricity grid, a gas grid and, in some cases, a heat grid. In the energy system of the future, there will be intelligent networks connecting electrons, molecules and heat.

The number of sources will increase through decentralised systems, geothermal energy, biogas and hydrogen. Energy will no longer go directly from power stations to end users. There will be wide variety in terms of sustainable sources, conversions, storage and transportation. This means not only system integration but also stakeholder integration as all of these parties will have to work together. Here too, TNO is providing technical and organisational solutions.

Reliability must go hand in hand with fairness

What are the challenges?

In addition to technological issues – such as the design of multifunctional networks in which artificial intelligence (AI) plays a major role – social innovation is of great importance. Reliability must go hand in hand with fairness as the sustainable energy system must be affordable for everyone. This is not only a social aspect but is also necessary to accelerate the energy transition. The energy transition will only get off the ground effectively if everyone joins in.

One person may have the money to invest in solar cells and can thus say goodbye to natural gas, whereas another will not have the means to do so. As a result, the energy bill will rise for those with less access to the market. TNO is conducting research into energy poverty and coming up with recommendations to counter this phenomenon, offering advice on how to ensure that no one is excluded from these far-reaching opportunities which are intended for everyone.

Which technological innovations is TNO working on?

We are working on a focused portfolio of technologies that contribute to the acceleration of the energy transition. This involves research into new techniques for sustainable energy generation, conversion to other energy carriers, intelligent networks, energy storage, transport, usage and all conceivable links between these. The use of renewable energy in industry alone is a story in its own right. In many cases, it turns out to be possible – step by step, using sophisticated combinations of techniques and adaptations – to optimise processes as well as to reduce CO₂ emissions, resulting in a good financial return.

There are plans to produce hydrogen offshore

Can we still use our natural gas grid now that production in Groningen is going to stop?

Thanks to the discovery and exploitation of the Groningen gas field, our country has developed a great deal of knowledge and built amazing infrastructure. As it was so cheaply available in such large quantities, part of our industry is also based on natural gas, such as bulk chemicals. In principle, these gas pipelines are suitable for the transportation of hydrogen which will eventually become available on a large scale from offshore wind. There are plans to produce hydrogen offshore and bring it to land via existing pipelines.

Hydrogen can contribute to the sustainability of large industrial clusters (which will then no longer need natural gas for their production processes), can serve as a fuel for heavy transport, shipping and eventually even aviation and can possibly heat houses and buildings which are difficult to make sustainable via the existing gas network.

How economically advantageous is our location in the North Sea?

The North Sea will play a crucial role in the energy transition. Large wind farms will be added that will supply enormous amounts of sustainable energy, there are plans for CO2 storage to make industry greener and we are working with a large number of parties in order to connect the offshore energy systems and make use of the existing platforms and pipelines.

This is happening in the North Sea Energy programme. By connecting all forms of energy production and infrastructure, costs can be saved. In this way, we are accelerating the energy transition while saving costs and space with respect for life on and in the sea.”

“One of the greatest challenges remains the setting up of the energy system in such a way that it functions optimally under all circumstances”

Are there still many obstacles?

“Essentially, system integration should minimise the social costs of the energy transition. But there is still a great deal of uncertainty as to how we are going to achieve the goals for 2030 and 2050. TNO is therefore identifying the bottlenecks and offering solutions to the government and industry on achieving these goals step by step in a financially viable manner. One of the greatest challenges remains the setting up of the energy system in such a way that it functions optimally under all circumstances. Soon, we may no longer have the gas power stations that keep the grid stable. And not every sector can run on electricity.

We have identified all of the conceivable technologies, networks, variations in supply and demand, costs and revenues and numerous other relevant data. In doing so, we help public authorities and companies to choose the right direction for a solution. Should we use the electricity grid more or use the gas grid for hydrogen? These are questions that can only be answered on the basis of system knowledge. As a director of innovation, TNO is working on robust transition paths that offer prospects for both industry and public authorities.”

What kinds of questions does TNO want to answer?

  • How can security of supply be guaranteed at the lowest possible economic and social costs?
  • Which types of energy infrastructure are required, and when and where?
  • Which assets can be reused and at what value?
  • What is the optimal strategy for the development of new infrastructure in the short and long term?
  • What kind of synergy can be achieved through cooperation in clusters, in chains and between sectors?
  • How can industrial processes be optimised using renewable energy?
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