The world’s busiest shipping routes, oil and gas installations, fishing boats, defence training areas, aquafarms, and countless wind farms under development….. It’s crowded out on the North Sea, and it’s going to get more and more crowded in the years ahead. Whereas the emphasis used to be on extracting fossil fuels, a new era has now dawned, one in which the main focus is on renewable energy. We talk to IRO director Sander Vergroesen about the consequences of the energy transition for the North Sea.
We talk to IRO director Sander Vergroesen about the consequences of the energy transition for the North Sea and the Dutch maritime landscape.
The IRO represents the oil and gas and offshore renewables industry
The Association of Dutch Suppliers in the Upstream Oil and Gas Industry and Offshore Renewable Industry (IRO) was founded in 1971 as the Industrial Council for Oceanology. Its director, Sander Vergroesen, explains that “the O in IRO was soon replaced by Oil and Gas. Since we were founded, we’ve gained a great deal of experience in the North Sea with regard to the oil and gas industry. Back then, we were completely dependent on fossil fuels. The Slochteren gas field in the north of the Netherlands began production later. The membership used to consist of various disciplines in the oil and gas industry and was a combination of suppliers, operators, knowledge institutes, and public authorities.” Today’s IRO doesn’t only represent the oil and gas industry but is also extremely active in the offshore renewables sector.
“Our strong point is that Dutch industry can deploy a great deal of experience.”
A new direction
A great deal has since changed. Oil and gas production has now peaked, and we are working hard on an energy transition. “The North Sea fields are becoming exhausted,” says Mr Vergroesen. “The question is what we will then do with those fields and their installations. Are we going to get rid of them – decommissioning – or will we reuse them for other purposes, such as storing hydrogen, for example? With EBN and NOGEPA, we’re now looking at how we can deal with all this effectively. We mustn’t become completely dependent on foreign countries for our current energy needs”. What is clear in any case is that the cost price of energy has to be reduced. The Netherlands plays a leading role when it comes to knowledge and experience. “Our strong point is that Dutch industry can deploy a great deal of experience”, says Mr Vergroesen.
Wind energy speeds up the energy transition
The momentum of the energy transition is increasing because offshore wind is being added to the mix. The Dutch government wants to use the North Sea for wind energy and CO2 storage in depleted gas fields so as to take major steps towards implementing the Paris climate agreements. Expanding offshore wind energy can also help to offset the reduction in the country’s natural gas production. All this is taking place even though we are still dependent on fossil fuels, which are largely produced from the North Sea.
Until 2030, the area already reserved in the North Sea will be sufficient to cope with the growth of wind energy, even with the most ambitious scenario. After that, many new areas will be needed, if by 2050 there is to be some 20 to 60 times more offshore wind energy compared to 2017. In the maximum scenario, in 2050 wind farms will cover about a sixth to a quarter of the Dutch sector of the North Sea, and will supply up to twice as much electricity as the Netherlands currently consumes. It won’t be possible to bring all of it ashore efficiently in the Netherlands with cables. Some of it could then be exported directly via North Sea cables or converted into energy carriers, such as hydrogen.
“Recently, Wagenborg has introduced specialist ‘walk-to-work’ vessels. In fact, Wagenborg is an important player in the North Sea.”
The North Sea as a laboratory
“I see the North Sea as a kind of laboratory,” says Mr Vergroesen, “a testing ground at a global level. The Netherlands is a leader in know-how and has a lot of top-class equipment, such as installation ships and cable-layers. Each and every one of them represents an innovation that reduces the cost price of our energy production. Recently, Wagenborg – a Dutch company – has introduced specialist ‘walk-to-work’ vessels. In fact, Wagenborg is an important player in the North Sea. It’s shown that it can apply know-how and proven technology, like the ‘Ampelmann’ personnel transfer system for its walk-to-work vessels. Safety is extremely important in the sector, but Wagenborg was brave enough to take the first step. That’s why I see Wagenborg as a forerunner in the walk-to-work market.”
Handicapped by being leader?
It’s important to continue to focus on efficiency as regards the Netherlands’ competitive position and to become less dependent on oil and gas. “Other countries are already a lot further ahead when it comes to the proportion of renewable energy in their energy mix. Countries like the US, Taiwan, Norway, and the UK are very active,” says Mr Vergroesen.
Other countries and economies are currently experiencing strong growth. On balance, the demand for energy is greater than ever. Despite the fact that the total amount of renewable energy is increasing, the energy mix remains the same. A recent report by the International Energy Agency (IEA) indicates that we will need to continue to utilise fossil fuels for decades to come. “So we’ve got a lot of work to do,” says Mr Vergroesen. “We absolutely MUST reduce CO2 if we want to keep the earth to keep turning.”
“It indicates the quality and reliability of the Dutch oil, gas, and offshore industry.”
Quality and reliability
Viewed internationally, the Netherlands has already been working on responsible business conduct for a long time. “The United Nations has added Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These are required targets that countries have to achieve, and the Netherlands is doing well. And if you do achieve them, then it’s another selling point internationally,” says Mr Vergroesen. “It indicates the quality and reliability of the Dutch oil, gas, and offshore industry.”