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Shutting off the gas tomorrow?

In the magazine Haven & Offshore 2021 of Maritiem Media an interview of Claudia Langendoen with AYOP-director Sylvia Boer and Jacoba Bolderheij, director of Port of Den Helder was published about the future of gas. You can read the whole article here.

That’s impossible…There’s quite some way to go yet.


Turning off the gas taps tomorrow and ending consumption of fossil fuels is simply impossible. Completing the energy transition will take time. And the Dutch North Sea and wind at sea sector will play a far more important role in this than we ever previously imagined. “The North Sea is crucial to society,” says Sylvia Boer, director of Amsterdam IJmuiden Offshore Ports (AYOP) and Jacoba Bolderheij, CEO of Port of Den Helder. Their organisations are currently facing enormously complex challenges, and both agree that the time for action is now.

Developments in and around the Dutch North Sea cannot easily be summarised – there are simply too many initiatives. The fast pace of growth in the market means there are also plenty of opportunities in the field of wind at sea. The European Commission is pushing for a quintuplication of the offshore wind energy capacity by 2030. The current 357 MW of installed capacity will be supplemented by over 7500 MW just outside the North Sea Canal region. The Dutch North Sea will see a total installation of some 11,500 MW, enough to provide Dutch households and industry with green power. And there is more to come.

The Hollandse Kust Noord and Zuid wind farms will be operational in two years. The Hollandse Kust West wind farm will come up for tender by the end of this year, and IJmuiden Ver somewhere between 2023 and 2025. The new Energy Port near IJmuiden is being built specifically for the realisation of these farms while Den Helder is also working on the development of new quays and areas to facilitate the transition.  

The North Sea currently accommodates 150 oil and gas platforms, the majority of which are approaching the end of their economic lifespan. Companies have started collaborations to dismantle and recycle these giant objects. And that’s just a small part of the many ongoing activities. There are now some 3500 kilometres of pipelines for the transport of gas between the platforms and the coast, with the majority of the extraction from the North Sea reaching shore near Den Helder.

There are so many developments in your field at a time when society is trying to recover from a pandemic. The offshore and port industries have also been affected by Covid – how is the recovery going in your ports?

Jacoba Bolderheij: “It’s going well. After a difficult period where the pandemic was combined with extremely low gas prices – something that’s hard to imagine now – we’re seeing an increase in ship movements and it is pretty busy again.”

Sylvia Boer: “We have seen a fall in transhipments in recent times but the plans for wind at sea have continued unabated. Energy is a basic need after all. The existing turbines continue running and the new wind farms have to be delivered on time.”

Jacoba Bolderheij: “It’s great that new ambitions were formulated this year, making it possible for another 10 GW of wind at sea to be realised by 2030. A large part of this will be built off the coast of North Holland.”

There is indeed a great deal happening in terms of ambitions. While that’s valuable, it also demands a lot of effort. What challenges are you facing in Amsterdam-IJmuiden and Den Helder?

Sylvia Boer: “The energy transition demands that we organise our infrastructure in a timely fashion. Wind at sea energy must be able to reach the shore and be connected to the grid. In addition, the energy transition will initially require more space, which is a tricky puzzle and a discussion that we have to approach in a smart way. The electrolysers needed to make hydrogen, for example, are very large. And wind turbines, which we expect to provide more and more power, are increasing in size and taking up more space. In the meantime, legislation is increasingly complex and stricter with regard to emissions and environmental checks for CO2 emissions. Legislation cannot always keep up with the speed of businesses and innovations, causing it to lag behind market developments. Legislators will have to act more quickly to ensure they don’t slow down innovations. Flexibility and speed are key to the progress of the energy transition.”

Jacoba Bolderheij: “And how does the energy reach shore? Via electrons, molecules, who knows? In addition to electrolysers for converting electricity into hydrogen, we may also require transformer/conversion stations. How will the province organise this and how can the different regions in North Holland strengthen each other in this respect? Can the northern part provide the space that is lacking in the North Sea Canal region?”

Plenty of developments and issues that demand answers. Time is running out as the call for alternative fuels becomes ever louder – feeling under pressure?

Sylvia Boer: “We obviously need time to make the energy transition work. Shutting off gas tomorrow and stopping the consumption of fossil fuels is simply impossible. We are all consuming too much and using too much energy. It’s just not viable to cover these demands with green energy in the short term.”

What is needed to make all the necessary changes?

Jacoba Bolderheij: “Collaboration, for one. The energy transition will provide us with lots of opportunities for growth; the initiatives are there and the market is ready. But the transition stage cannot be completed alone! This is something the next Dutch government must take on board. Achieving the climate goals as a society will require all hands to be on deck in every regard. We need to be bold too. Bold enough to make decisions and embrace innovations even when we can’t be 100 per cent certain they’ll work. In the interest of the climate we don’t have the luxury to wait and see how things pan out for another couple of years.”

Sylvia Boer: “It is essential to collaborate within the golden triangle of business, government and academia. Taking an approach that spans multiple perspectives at once, including technology, the market, society, ecology, spatial planning and legislation. An integrated approach which makes the most of the potential of offshore energy. The importance of the North Sea has turned out to be far greater than we ever imagined. It is crucial to our society and its impact on the Netherlands is huge.’’

As ports you work together a lot, including in the Hydroports partnership between Port of Amsterdam, Port of Den Helder and Groningen Seaports, focused on optimising the infrastructure for the hydrogen economy. From the perspective of this collaboration, how do you see the European Commission’s goal to reduce CO2 emissions by 55 per cent by 2030? To what extent can Hydroports contribute?

Sylvia Boer: “The Fit for 55 package (which should help the European Commission realise this goal – ed.) contains an obligation for ports to provide renewable fuels. This is something we were already working on. You could see Fit for 55 as a target to work towards. In the partnership between seaports, Hydroports aims to connect the various hydrogen initiatives and link the infrastructure demands.”

There are countless plans and projects – which initiatives do you find especially interesting?

Sylvia Boer: “There are various projects in Amsterdam-IJmuiden related to the production of hydrogen, import and export, and infrastructure. Fuel stations to stimulate mobility are a good example. The first hydrogen vessel, the Hydrocat, a hybrid Crew Transfer Vessel for Windcat Workboats, has already been ordered.’’

Jacoba Bolderheij: “The issues related to Tata Steel (a major contributor to CO2 emissions – ed.) are obvious and everyone is working hard to find solutions. Green hydrogen is the future we are working towards. Before we reach that stage Den Helder is working on a blue hydrogen plant to produce hydrogen from gas that reaches the shore via our port. CO2 is captured, returned to sea via existing pipelines and stored in empty gas fields. The clean hydrogen can then be brought to industrial clusters, and possibly to Tata. The plant in Den Helder can produce between 500 and 550 tonnes of hydrogen a day, which means we can contribute 25 per cent of the annual production of industrial hydrogen. That’s a reduction of two megatonnes of CO2 a year, the equivalent of 14 per cent of the annual industrial target for 2030. It would be great if we could link these initiatives within the province and in our ports.”

How long do you expect it will be before hydrogen is abundantly available?

Jacoba Bolderheij: “Some time yet, although there are so many initiatives, ideas and studies related to the production of green energy at sea that things might suddenly speed things up. The government will have to take on a role in this process as well.”

Sylvia Boer: “Increasing the sustainability of electricity is a huge task. Take the closure of the Hemweg plant, for instance. The energy that came from there now has to be generated elsewhere. And making hydrogen at sea requires a lot of wind at sea. It demands the 10 GW extra that still has to be installed at sea by 2030. But we also need energy today and tomorrow. Demand is rapidly rising, especially with the electrification of the industry, And the grid is already congested. So, yes, I think that hydrogen will take some time.”

Jacoba Bolderheij: “Meanwhile we are striving to increase sustainability even along the green hydrogen trajectory. In Den Helder, for example, we are working on hydrogen bunker stations, both in the seaport and the inner port. And we are researching the opportunity for a hydrogen-shore power generator in the seaport – initiatives that are supported by subsidy providers such as RVO and the Wadden Fund.’’

Looking further ahead, how do you expect the ports of the future to look in, say, 2050? Share your insights with us.

Sylvia Boer: “There will be at least 25 times more wind turbines in the European waters compared to today. This means greater challenges and even bigger opportunities for offshore wind.”

Jacoba Bolderheij: “There will still be ships in the waters, and helicopters in the sky, and maintenance will be as necessary as ever. The maritime industry in the North Holland ports will be extremely busy with all that is happening at sea. In addition to the countless wind turbines, there will be installations producing gas as well as platforms converted into production platforms for wind or H2 or… who knows. There’ll also be islands off the coast to benefit the wind sector and hydrogen production, and these will require people and materials too. At the same time, we’ll be living in an era in which drones are common along with unmanned ships and remote maintenance. We’ll see that logistics related to all these activities will be far more integrated within the framework of cost efficiency. Port of Den Helder is currently working with TNO to study how these new logistical techniques and innovations can be brought together.”

Sylvia Boer: “Digitisation will continue to play a major role in the shift to sustainability in areas such as remote monitoring to reduce energy consumption and smart maintenance. Robotisation will also be an important aspect, much to the benefit of the staff shortages in the sector. Both these developments will create a new type of job. We’ll also be using sustainable fuels and more efficient modes of transport thanks to digitisation, which will prevent containers on vessels and trucks from being transported empty or half-full. The concept of smart shipping will be business as usual.’’

Jacoba Bolderheij: “By 2030 we’ll start to see the seaports applying more integrated methods and by 2050 they’ll be the standard. There will much work to do and the activities we expect for the future are almost inconceivable today. By 2050 the Energy Port in IJmuiden will be a fact. New quays will have been installed in Den Helder, and the seaport expanded with a huge acreage of work space. Both ports will be continuously providing services, facilitating and maintaining everything that has been built and made operational on the North Sea in the previous decades.’’

And both of you are tasked with guiding us towards these developments from the Amsterdam-IJmuiden and Den Helder ports. Two strong women in top positions in the port and offshore world – or is this the wrong way to put it? Is gender even an issue at all? Put another way, does the man’s world of yesteryear still exist in the port and offshore industry and in the maritime sector in general?

Jacoba Bolderheij: “Yes, diversity is still an issue, as is the case in many sectors. And there’s still insufficient diversity in the boardrooms. But I think there’s an even greater issue at play on the work floor. In the coming decades there will be tens of thousands of vacancies in the technical arena, while only 2.5 per cent of the one million students opt for a technical education. Of this small number, only a fraction chooses the maritime or offshore sector. And that’s a problem for us all which is unrelated to gender. Let’s solve that challenge and include all students in doing so.

“The educational institutes will have to work with industry in North Holland to align the demand for technical staff to the supply. I think we should be establishing trade schools together with higher vocational schools and colleges and look into issues such as paid study. There are opportunities for our region in this regard. Youngsters in the vicinity of ports such as IJmuiden and Den Helder are familiar with and used to the sea. Hopefully they can be tempted to choose for a training course in the sector.”

Sylvia Boer: “This is crucial. The energy transition will require all sorts of new solutions. We must innovate as a sector and are most likely to succeed with teams that have a diverse composition. People not just from different genders, but from all ethnicities and age groups. From drone pilots to IT staff, from mechanics who travel to work by helicopter wearing an overall and helmet to project managers in suits, we have to widen our talent pool as we need them all to realise the energy transition and keep our wind turbines at sea operational."