On March 29th of this year, the Dutch government took the decision to abolish natural gas extraction in the province of Groningen by the year 2030. The decision was a response to the anger of inhabitants of the province of Groningen, who saw their homes being damaged by earthquakes that are induced by natural gas extraction. A historical decision and a milestone in the Dutch energy transition, but it leaves us with a very important question: what will the future of energy look like? We still need to heat our homes and to cook our food after all! Innovative as we are in the Northern Netherlands, the Northern Netherlands do not lack ambition: getting rid of natural gas offers opportunities to transform our economy into the first green hydrogen economy in the world.

Since the discovery of the Groningen gas field in 1959, the Dutch government extracted a total amount of gas worth approximately 265 billion euros, responsible for about 10 percent of government incomes every year. Trading this underground source of wealth helped us building the welfare state that made the Netherlands one of the most prosperous countries on Earth. In 2012, times started to change. An earthquake caused direct damage worth millions of euros, a vast decrease in real estate prices and, most importantly, enormous resistance among local residents: what once was a source of seemingly unlimited wealth turned into the source of misery and deterioration. Many more earthquakes followed, and although the earthquakes already started to occur in 1986, the concerns of the public were dismissed quickly as the economic importance of natural gas trade was simply too big.

Figure 1: A (greatly) simplified visualization of a hydrogen-dominated energy supply system. This illustration is meant to show how hydrogen might function as an energy carrier, where it comes from under sustainable circumstances and how cross-dimensional hydrogen use works. Important: In reality, a simple system like this is highly unlikely to evolve on a large scale. Source: Author

Of course, there is another issue related to natural gas extraction as well. During the summer of 2015, 175 governments from all over the world decided in Paris that CO2 emissions must be significantly reduced in order to prevent the disastrous conse-quences of climate change. Fossil fuels are the most important contributor to CO2 emissions and thus the use of these fuels has to be eliminated wherever possible. Although the need for a sus-tainable alternative to the fossil-based energy supply system is now widely understood and all necessary technology is available, there still are some issues connected to this unbelievably big challenge. Firstly, renewable energy production is dependent on meteorological and geographical characteristics of a place. Secondly, renewable energy requires storage mechanisms for periods when energy demand exceeds energy supply. These issues can only be overcome by experimenting and doing. Thirdly, the fact that it is technically possible does not mean the energy transition is economically desirable, as it involves significant investments in infrastructure and new appliances. And, what to do with all the infrastructure we have built to transport fossil-based energy carriers? Serious challenges, which need to be addressed before the energy transition can really take off.

There is hope, however:

‘Water will one day be employed as fuel, that hydrogen and oxygen of which it is constituted will be used’

With these words, Jules Verne (a famous 19th-century French author of science-fiction books) described his dreams of the energy supply of the future in his novel The Mysterious Island dating from 1874. But until recently, the hydrogen economy remained a dream rather than a reality. For decades, most scientists por-trayed the hydrogen economy as technically impracticable and economically unfeasible. Fortunately, however, some scientists from a wide range of disciplines kept dreaming about a hydrogen economy: hydrogen simply has too much potential for addressing the energy transition challenges to be overlooked. With the need for an energy transition in mind, hydrogen is once again given the attention it deserves as an energy carrier. And we might be at the very best place to experience it: the Northern Netherlands has ambitious plans for becoming the first hydrogen economy in the world.

Figure 2: Spatial visualization for a hydrogen economy in the Northern Netherlands as outlined in the report Green Hydrogen Economy in the Northern Netherlands by the Northern Innovation Board. Source: edited and translated after Northern Innovation Board (NIB, 2017).

Firstly, hydrogen can function as an easily transportable storage carrier for excess supply of renewable electricity by water electrolysis (a chemical process by which water is split into hydrogen gas and oxygen gas). This gas can be stored underground, in empty salt caverns or natural gas fields, and used whenever necessary to feed hydrogen boilers or fuel cells. Fuel cells are devices that transform hydrogen into electricity by exposing it to oxygen from the air that feed an electromotor. Secondly, hydrogen can relatively easily be transported by using the already existing natural gas network. This takes away the need to remove those pipelines and reduces the amount of money that needs to be invested in high-capacity electricity networks. A characteristic unique to hydrogen is that it can even be exchanged between different energy consuming entities: the hydrogen that comes from your future pipeline to heat your future house can also be used to drive your future fuel cell car and vice versa. You can even produce it yourself by having solar panels on your future roof with a reversible fuel cell in your future fuse box! The illustration below visualizes such a possible system.

Although this might sound as a gift from heaven, unfortunately there are some serious challenges as well for such a hydrogen-driven economy. Firstly, it is important to realise that hydrogen is not a source of energy; it has to be produced from other energy sources (like wind power, solar power, hydropower, biomass or fossil fuels) and this will always involve a net efficiency loss.

To do that in a sustainable way and to accommodate this efficiency loss, the capacity for renewable electricity production needs to increase dramatically. Secondly, such a fundamentally different energy carrier for the entire economy requires a lot of investments in new infrastructure (hydrogen fuel stations), vehicles (fuel cell cars, planes, ships, etcetera), devices (hydrogen boilers and stoves) and storage locations.

Conclusion

Although there are serious challenges for the emergence of a hydrogen-based economy, it is a promising alternative that is definitely worth considering. Last year, the Northern Innovation Board (a platform of regional governments, influential companies and scientists) gave it a kick-off and since then, the first concrete steps became visible. Hydrogen fuel stations slowly start to open around the country, the first hydrogen-fueled buses became operational in Groningen and we are now exploring the first possibility to use hydrogen for heating purposes in a neighborhood in the city of Hoogeveen. Figure 2 shows an idea for how such a system might look like. This is a very exciting development, in which small steps possibly function as the first seeds for a transition towards a fundamentally different and sustainable energy supply system. An opportunity for the Northern Netherlands as well, to show its strong position in the energy sector once again by converting problems into opportunities!

This article has been written in response to my Masters’ thesis for the Environmental and Infrastructure Planning Masters’ programme. This masters’ thesis explores the institutional possibilities for facilitating hydrogen energy within the energy transition for the built environment in the Netherlands and is being written in collaboration with Royal HaskoningDHV. Are you interested in how hydrogen energy fits within the larger challenge of the energy transition? Please contact the author of the article!

This article was published in the Northern Netherlands edition, May 2018.

Top photo: Fuel cell car. Source: Wikimedia Commons