The North Sea – A Global Energy Hotspot

The North Sea area offers the opportunity to demonstrate the energy transition from fossil fuels to renewables.
Published: Fri 09 Oct 2015

The North Sea area is relatively small but important and in some respects unique when it comes to energy. It has become an important centre of fossil fuel generation and since the late 1960s an important source of the fossil fuels themselves, and now it is seeing growing interest for the development of renewables, especially offshore wind power. [see e.g. Engerati-Offshore Windfarms Set To Reach New Levels]

It also has the potential to bring in new technologies, such as power-to-gas and hydrogen storage and carbon capture and storage using the decommissioned oil and gas wells, platforms and pipelines that otherwise would have to be removed.

“We have estimated that approximately 6% of the world’s energy production takes place in the North Sea area,” Carinus Jepma, Professor of Energy and Sustainability at University of Groningen and Energy Delta Institute, told Engerati in an exclusive interview. “It also accounts for almost three-quarters of Europe’s energy production and as an energy hotspot, it is worth studying to see how it deals with the energy transition.”

A North Sea energy network

With this potential the European North Sea Energy Alliance (ENSEA) project was established in October 2012 with EU support with participants from Scotland, Germany, the Netherlands and Norway to advance energy system integration across the North Sea area.

With the project in its closing stages and a final report still to appear, a final assessment is still pending, but Prof. Jepma, who chairs the ENSEA Scientific Advisory Group, believes it has led to real progress.

He points to three specific targets – to encourage greater networking between parties across the region, to initiate a triple helix type organization (involving research/academia, the industry and public authorities) to oversee energy system integration across the region, and to set up joint energy system integration projects based on the triple helix formula. Of these only the second hasn’t yet resulted, but there are initiatives that may lead to the formation of such an organization.

“We now have well established networks between Norway and Scotland and Germany and Holland that didn’t exist before, but the feeling is that if we want to resolve the energy integration challenges of the North Sea area we need a triple helix organization overseeing the whole energy picture.”

North Sea area projects

A starting point for ENSEA was to characterize the region’s energy innovation capabilities and potential for each of the participating countries, resulting in a combined portfolio of some 160 areas of project ideas.

The finding was that energy innovation is not only booming in all the four regions but moreover, is growing rapidly. To enhance collaboration between the various players some activities that were identified include:

  • Programmes for educational collaboration and exchange between the estimated approximately 50 energy knowledge centres around the North Sea
  • Increased interaction and cooperation within and between regional SME networks around the North Sea
  • Networks of sustainable communities around the North Sea aiming at participation and consumer engagement
  • A joint research pool via PhD and other research staff exchange programmes and joint participation in North Sea pilot projects.

Some major project themes were also identified including:

  • How to optimally integrate hydro storage facilities and options into the overall North Sea energy system
  • How to resolve the increasing power grid balancing challenge due to intermittent sources with the help of new storage options based on power-to-gas and related technology development
  • How to optimally design the North Sea area power and gas grid, as well as wind farms and other energy related installations, taking into account differentials in national energy policies, public acceptance issues, legal boundaries, etc.

Smart Combinations in the North Sea

Another project theme that Prof. Jepma is developing is how to reconcile the anticipated decommissioning of the approximately 600 oil and gas platforms and related grids with the potential to use at least part of the infrastructure for modern renewable based energy and chemical activity.

The ‘Smart Combinations’ project proposes as early as 2017 to launch conversion pilot projects on an operational platform and a platform that would otherwise be decommissioned. This would be followed around 2020 with a full-blown pilot drawing power from a 600MW offshore wind park for the production of synthetic natural gas and later a large-scale demonstration with baseload energy and hydrogen infeed into the gas grid.

“There are several chemical conversions that can introduced to create maximum value from the wind,” says Prof. Jepma, noting that the viability will depend on the speed of movement towards a hydrogen economy and factors such as the extent of public opposition to onshore power to hydrogen conversion facilities.

He adds that the use of the platforms for such activities would also be an incentive for the oil companies, which otherwise would be faced with the costs of their removal.

Illustrative figures for such conversions are that assuming 0.5% hydrogen admixing to natural gas, a 65MW electrolyser capacity would be sufficient to cover the demand of 1.8 million households. If 5% of Dutch cars were to be fuelled by green gas from North Sea conversion, this would require some 22 platforms each hosting an 80MW electrolyser and methanation.

“This would make a smart combination out of using old fossil fuel equipment to resolve the intermittency of renewables,” concludes Prof. Jepma.

In a follow up article in preparation we will address energy system integration in more detail.

Further information

For more on ENSEA view this interview with Gerrit Van Werven, Director, ENSEA.