future view

Rules and regulations are delaying energy integration in the North Sea

19 February 2019 • 4 min reading time

Energy expert Rene Peters talks about the impediments caused by current legislation

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North Sea Energy

Because of the large-scale generation of energy by wind farms, the North Sea is set to play a crucial role in the energy transition. Thanks to successful government policies, major steps have been taken that are resulting in the creation of large wind farms at low cost. By linking these farms to the oil and gas industry infrastructure, such as platforms and pipelines, there are benefits to the environment and the more sustainable generation of energy is becoming increasingly attainable. However, legislation can sometimes prove to be an obstacle to this innovation.

“We really have to think carefully about the changes we need to make to legislation in order to remove these kinds of obstacles. For example, network operator TenneT may only bring electricity from wind farms on land, even though we have a need for connections between wind farms and platforms. A smart energy network is needed in the North Sea for electrifying platforms, producing hydrogen and storing CO2 in empty fields. These are important stages in the energy transition.”

Speaking is TNO energy expert Rene Peters, who is also the North Sea Energy programme manager. North Sea Energy is a TKI programme in which TNO, New Energy Coalition, the University of Groningen, Wageningen Marine Research, and Royal Haskoning DHV are collaborating with oil and gas companies, wind operators, suppliers and the public sector. On 6 February, the programme presented its findings from an investigation into system integration in the North Sea. The programme analysed the opportunities and challenges in the field of technology, the economy, environmental effects and legislation.

Combining two challenges

“We face two major challenges,” says Rene Peters. “The oil and gas industry is legally obliged to remove platforms and pipelines that are no longer used. During the next twenty years, this will affect around 150 platforms and 3,000 kilometres of pipelines. In addition, wells and reservoirs will have to be closed off. As a society, our aim is to generate much more renewable energy and to reduce CO2 emissions. With the increasing prevalence of huge wind farms located further and further away from the coast, the North Sea has an important role to play. New infrastructure will have to be built for bringing electricity generated at sea onto the land. Combining these two challenges will make everything much smarter, less costly and more environmentally friendly.”

Hydrogen highly promising

Hydrogen is an important part of the plans. Bringing energy generated by wind onto land in the form of molecules rather than as electrons allows the existing infrastructure in the North Sea to be used for producing hydrogen and for transmitting it through existing gas pipelines. However, this is currently prevented by national and international legislation. According to a 1998 convention on the protection of the north-eastern part of the Atlantic Ocean, platforms on the North Sea that are no longer used for production must be cleared away. Dutch legislation, too, forms an obstacle. Even though hydrogen is one of the highly promising energy transition options, the production of hydrogen is not covered by any clear legal framework, its transmission is not legally regulated in the Gas Act, and the blending of hydrogen is allowed only to a limited degree. “If we want to use the platforms for a new purpose and produce hydrogen at sea, something will have to change. Legislation is currently acting as an obstacle to solutions that are desirable from an environmental and social point of view,” says Rene Peters.

Environemental effects

Giving the ten to twenty largest platforms a new function in energy transition will result in lower emissions of CO2, NOx and particulate matter, and less noise nuisance. North Sea Energy has already calculated that electrifying the top ten platforms will save half a megaton of CO2 emissions by providing them with power from a wind farm. The new investigation is examining in greater depth the environmental effects of reusing platforms and pipelines. It has identified important synergies for the environment – and some negative effects, which should perhaps be looked at more closely. None of the environmental effects identified cause significant disruption to the environment. 

Hydrogen and CO2 storage business case

The investigation also looked at which empty fields in the North Sea are suitable for storing CO2, whether pipelines can be used for transmitting CO2 and hydrogen, and which platforms are suitable for the production of hydrogen. It also examined how this could be made profitable in combination with the electrification of the platforms.

For CO2 storage, the combined business case looks positive. The same cannot be said for hydrogen, at least not in the short term, because the market is served by less expensive grey hydrogen, produced from natural gas. For large-scale production of green hydrogen, via electrolysis of sustainably generated electricity such as wind or solar, most platforms are too small. The business case for hydrogen at sea would look better if savings could be made in the costs of bringing wind energy ashore through the production and transmission of hydrogen. The existing gas pipelines could be used for transmission from large platforms or energy islands. This would reduce the burden on the land-based national grid.

Joining forces

In order to bring about the necessary construction of an offshore electricity network that connects wind farms and platforms, the business community and government must join forces in the very short term and remove the relevant legal obstacles. The decarbonization of industry with the help of blue or green hydrogen should be making an essential contribution towards accelerating the energy transition. The development of the North Sea as a source of green hydrogen or for the storage of CO2 is a crucial aspect of this. And because many of these companies are located near the coast (Maasvlakte and Botlek, Zeeland, IJmuiden, Eemshaven), the benefits to be gained are considerable.

This TNO project supports the following Sustainable Development Goals

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North Sea Energy
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