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‘Groningen Is the Saudi Arabia of Europe’

By March 25, 2022 7   min read  (1230 words)

March 25, 2022 |

Fuel Cells Works, 'Groningen Is the Saudi Arabia of Europe'

Professor David Smeulders on the energy transition and Europe’s dependence on Russia.

A science-based plan on how to shape the energy transition is sorely needed, according to Professor of Energy Technology David Smeulders. Not just to stop Vladimir Putin but also to make sure the energy transition is managed fairly. According to Smeulders, it is impossible to remove gas from the European energy mix in the short term. Nuclear energy must also be taken into account.

Obstructing Putin? Then immediately stop importing Russian gas, says TU/e Professor of Energy Technology David Smeulders resolutely. After all, tens of millions of European euros still disappear daily into the Kremlin’s pockets in exchange for Russian gas. “Dry up those funds, that’s when you hit him the hardest,” Smeulders pleads.

Accelerating insulation and producing more renewable energy should eventually lead to less European dependence on Russian gas, but this process takes years.  For the time being, Smeulders argues, we need gas. But without Russia, how can we sufficiently replenish our European gas reserves – which are already historically low? Prices on the spot market (short-term gas supply) are currently skyrocketing.

The key to a smooth European energy transition that makes us less dependent on Russia lies in the province of Groningen, says Smeulders. “Groningen is the Saudi Arabia of Europe when it comes to gas. We have chosen to close the Groningen gas field ourselves and make ourselves dependent on foreign supply, while at the current value there is at least 1000 billion euros worth of gas in the ground. That’s three years of the entire Dutch government budget.”

SENSITIVE MATTER

Fuel Cells Works, 'Groningen Is the Saudi Arabia of Europe'

Obstruct Putin? Then stop importing Russian gas immediately, says Smeulders. Photo: Marco Iacobucci Epp via Shutterstock

The professor realizes that it is a sensitive matter. Soil movements resulting from gas extraction in Groningen caused damage to houses and buildings in the past. The settlement of damage was far from smooth: many Groningers are justifiably frustrated and distrustful of the government, according to Smeulders. For this reason, the professor argues that Groningen should benefit to a greater extent. “We should not put the risks on the shoulders of the Groningers,” he says.

Smeulders: “With the money you earn in Groningen you can finance a three-phase project, for example. Firstly, we can properly deal with the settlement of the claims. Secondly, we can finally start strengthening the homes. And thirdly, you can investigate how to structurally reduce the probability of earthquakes.”

If the Netherlands fully opens the gas tap in Groningen, then the Netherlands could replace a quarter of Russian gas exports to Europe, but Smeulders does not advocate that. “The risk of earthquakes would be far too great. In any case, there is no safe lower limit for gas production; we have to be honest about that. All the gas that you extract from the ground in Groningen causes a drop in pressure, which in turn causes the ground to sink. If that happens in jumps, you get earthquakes. Soil subsidence is a slow process, so even if we stop extracting gas in Groningen, the risk of earthquakes will remain.”

THE SMART SWITCH TRICK

There is, however, the smart switch trick, as Smeulders puts it. If we extract natural gas and pump back another gas in its place, we limit the pressure drops that cause earthquakes. This minimizes the risk of earthquakes. “For example, we can inject nitrogen gas.”

This is not a new technique, because the underground gas fields in Bergmeer and Norg are pumped full of natural gas every summer, as a reserve supply that is recovered in the winter. Smeulders: “We have experience with maintaining the pressure there, the soil remains steady. Moreover, we are now producing nitrogen gas on a large scale to dilute the Russian natural gas, so that it has the same properties as Groningen natural gas. We will even take a new nitrogen plant into operation in Zuidbroek next summer where 180,000 cubic meters of nitrogen can be made per hour.”

SCIENTIFICALLY UNDERPINNED PLAN

Fuel Cells Works, 'Groningen Is the Saudi Arabia of Europe'

David Smeulders. Photo: Bart van Overbeeke

According to Smeulders, it is now high time for a credible, scientifically underpinned plan on how we should shape the energy transition. Writing off gas because of current geopolitical tensions is not a smart choice in this regard, according to the professor.

“We would then trade our dependence on Putin for dependence on the weather gods. After all, sun and wind are also unreliable and now generate about a third to a quarter of the electricity in many European countries. In the Netherlands, the percentage is even lower: 20 percent. The transition is difficult here because the landscape integration of wind farms and solar meadows on land is not easy and comes up against a lot of resistance.”

Smeulders continues: “There is support for rooftop solar, but for a good balance in the power grid, the supply of sun and wind must be balanced. If there is no sun at night, you do have a chance of wind. In the winter the wind blows harder than in the summer, while solar panels work less well in the winter. There has to be a balance; now the share of wind in the Netherlands is too low.”

AFFORDABLE FOR EVERYONE

The professor emphasizes that we will continue to need gas and all those gas pipes in the Netherlands, certainly if we want to keep the energy transition affordable for everyone. There is a danger that desirable investments in sustainable energy – such as solar panels, insulation and heat pumps – will actually promote energy poverty, because poorer households will also contribute to the government’s subsidy scheme. “Because poorer households cannot buy a heat pump or panels themselves and therefore do not benefit from them, the inequality between rich and poor is actually increased.”

Fuel Cells Works, 'Groningen Is the Saudi Arabia of Europe'

Smeulders: ‘There has to be balance, now the share of wind in the Netherlands is too low.’ Photo: engel.ac via Shutterstock

At the same time, the Netherlands has a very sophisticated network of gas pipelines that serves rich and poor. Smeulders: “Why tear that down? Natural gas can continue to flow through it in the coming years, so that the transition to a sustainable energy system can take place more gradually and therefore more cheaply. And in time, that network will be suitable for green alternatives.”

Some of the things he considers include hydrogen gas or synthetic natural gas, but in order for those gases to be transported on a large scale, it is essential that the government not be too hasty with their off-the-gas operations. “The current gas lines to homes should stay in place, because the existing regional and main transmission lines are great for transporting green alternatives.”

GREEN ATOMIC POWER

Because the production of green hydrogen also requires green electricity – and the same goes for electric cars and heat pumps – Smeulders believes that the possibility of adding nuclear power to the energy mix should also be considered. “Nuclear power plants do not emit CO2 and create small amounts of radioactive waste. I would therefore like to see atomic power labelled as green.”

Smeulders wants to speed up the creation of a large-scale plan on how to achieve a sustainable and equitable energy system for both rich and poor. “Until that system is rolled out, we still need natural gas very badly. In doing so, gas from Groningen should not be a taboo.”

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