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BLOG – 2: How to lead the energy transition in Gigawatt?

10.02.2022 by Mart van der Kam

Which strategy will you choose to be the first to reach zero emissions? Will you shake things up by going full green as fast as possible, or will you go forth on your current path by increasing the efficiency of the existing system first? Do you prefer subsidies or taxation? Are you a believer in centralized or decentralized energy? Independence or interconnection? And what if the people reject your decisions and put on their gilets jaunes?

In choosing your strategy, ensure that you are deeply familiar with your region. Obviously, geography has a large influence on how suitable your region is for technologies such as solar energy, wind power, and hydropower. But politics and culture are also important, as there are clear differences in preferences for technologies. For example, Germany has been closing nuclear power plants since Fukushima, while France considers expanding nuclear power to be key to reducing CO2 emissions. Renewable energy sources such as wind and solar energy can also lead to protests, as many people think they ruin the landscape. The historical development of your energy system matters as well. While the Netherlands wants to reduce its use of gas due the earthquakes in the gas extraction region, Germany, a country traditionally less dependent on gas, sees increasing their use of gas as a necessary transition phase to zero-emission energy technologies.

A proper energy transition strategy should not be only about energy production, but also about how you manage your produced energy. Switching to renewables such as solar and wind increases the variability of your production. One way to deal with that is to strengthen your grid connection with other regions, who you could trade your energy with. However, be sure your own production does not fall too short, as the price for imported energy can be high. Rather be more independent? Invest more in storage. A strategy for storage can include batteries, hydrogen, pumping up water, or simply using your surplus to build a block tower and lower the blocks when you need energy again.

Choose wisely, and it will be you who gets eternal glory by setting the shining example for the energy of the future! And the losers? Let them take comfort in this being a game in which no matter who is first, the whole of humanity wins.

BLOG – 1: What is a Gigawatt? A look at the future

22.12.2021 by Pim Sauter

The Netherlands installed 2.9 GigaWatt (GW) of solar power in 2020. This sounds very impressive, but is it really? What can you do with a GW? How many times does this have to happen to clean up the Dutch energy system? Is that even possible? So many questions! Let’s build up the answer from the most basic building blocks possible. If a paragraph is too simple for you, just skip to the next.

What is a Watt?

All the things around us contain energy, and this is usually expressed in Joule. If you read the print on a jar of peanut butter it will probably tell you the amount of energy it contains, in Joule. A Watt is a the answer to the question: how much energy does a thing use per unit of time? More specifically, it is equivalent to one Joule per second. It is important to distinguish the concepts of energy and power well, and this is surprisingly often not done. A helpful analogy is a bathtub: the amount of water in the bathtub is the energy. If you drain the bathtub, the speed at which it loses its water is the power.

How much is a Watt?

An example where we’ve all seen Watt is the lightbulb, where an old school one can be around 50W, and an equivalent modern LED one 5W. A very fit cyclist can average 400W cycling for an hour, which means they could theoretically power 80 LED bulbs during that hour, assuming no energy losses. With that statistic, it doesn’t even sound that bad to just power a country by fit cyclists, especially for the Netherlands, where there are enough of those.

How much Watt do you need to power a country?

Due to some strange twist of fate, the main source of energy at the moment in the Netherlands is not fit cyclists. Instead, we rely mainly on fossil fuels to power all our activities. If we want to switch all of that to some cleaner alternative, we first have to know how much that is. So, how much Watt is the Netherlands? Well, it depends! In the middle of the night, when everyone is asleep, the energy consumption will be lower than during daytime, when we are all doing our energy consuming things, such as watching TV, or working on our laptop. During winter time, the energy consumption will on average be higher than in summer, because we have to heat all our houses.One way to look at it is to look at our the amount of Watts we have installed to cater to our energy needs. The total installed capacity at the moment is 40 billion Watts, or 40 GW (we would need 100 million fit cyclists to match this, clearly impractical for a population of 17 million). Out of this, roughly 16 GW is renewable already. Great, so we are well on our way; just 24 GW of renewable capacity to add and we are done! Right?

The problem with renewables

Unfortunately it isn’t that easy, and the reason why is very simple: the wind doesn’t always blow, and the sun doesn’t always shine. Fossil (or nuclear) plants have one big advantage: they can run 24/7, as long as you feed them their favorite fuels. This means that they are very suited to power a country that is not constantly using the same amount of energy: when there is a high demand for energy, you turn up the knob on your gas and coal plants. When demand is low, you turn down the knob. The wind and the sun don’t have that knob. This means there will be times that you have too much energy, and times that you have too little.

Are we doomed?

That seems like a pretty serious problem. Is this the nail in the coffin of renewables? Most likely not, but it will make things much higher in a renewables driven world, compared to the fossil era. One way to overcome the problem is storage. If you have too much energy at a given point in time, you can store it for later use. Different solutions exist for storage: batteries can store energy for a short duration, but are not suited for longer term storage. For longer term storage, you can pump up water with the energy you have, and let it flow down and use that energy when you need it. You do need height difference for that, which can be a problem at times, especially for countries such as the Netherlands. Other options for long term storage are storing energy in sustainable fuels, such as hydrogen made from water. These can be used to replace natural gas in industrial applications, such as fertilizer production. But there are other ways than storage to address the problem. One is to make sure that the electricity grid connections have more capacity. The larger and more well connected the grid is, the better this will work: when the Netherlands has an energy shortage because the day is not very windy, they could import this energy from Spain, where it is very sunny that same day, and they have more energy than they need. Last, but not least, is a shift in the way demand and supply work: instead of having supply follow demand, let demand follow supply. This might sound strange; how can you suddenly make people want energy in the middle of the night, just because it is windy then? The answer: money! If it is twice as cheap to consume energy at that time, consumers will switch. This is especially interesting for large consumers, such as factory owners. They often have processes that can run mostly autonomous, and thus it matters less if these run at day- or night-time. But this can also apply to consumers: if you plug in your electric car after you come home from work, and you get the choice: we charge it right now for 10 euros, or anytime between now and tomorrow morning for 5 euros, you will probably choose the latter option, unless you have nocturnal driving plans.

How to sound smart at parties?

The key question is of course: how can you use this to sound smart at parties? All of the above is probably too much to remember, especially after you have had a couple of drinks. One of the best ways to go about it is to follow the rule: if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. When your friend claims we just need to build wind and solar, tell them why it won’t work and why we need much more than just that (and probably ruin their day in the process). If your uncle keeps saying we need to go 100% nuclear, try to think why this isn’t happening at the moment, and if it is likely to every happen (answer: probably not, and it has to do with money). Either way, this should give you enough ammunition to sound smart. Be careful: it might not lead to people liking you more.