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The realization of Europe’s first renewable energy valleys

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By Joep Sanderink

· 6 min read

After a period in December and January during which the Netherlands was tormented by overflowing rivers that forced residents to evacuate, it once again became apparent that the negative impacts of climate change aren't only unfolding upon future generations. To put a halt on global warming, aiming for a maximum increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels, the energy sector has a significant role to play. Achieving this goal necessitates accelerating the pace in which the energy system transitions from fossil-based to renewables-based.

This energy transition is frequently associated solely with the ‘electrification’ of the energy system. As more solar farms and wind parks increase the generation of renewable electricity, there has been a reduction in demand for fossil fuels such as natural gas, oils and coals. Simultaneously, fossil-based appliances such as internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles, natural gas fired stoves and boilers are being replaced by electric vehicles, electric or induction stoves and electric heat pumps and e-boilers.

That being said, electrification is not enough to achieve the energy transition. It is crucial to consider all pathways, including the need of other clean ‘energy carriers’, such as green molecules and heat to replace fossil fuel usage. When looking at overall energy consumption, approximately 20% of the total final energy consumption of the Netherlands is being consumed as electricity whereas the remaining 80% is being consumed as a different energy carrier. When zooming out, similar shares of consumed energy sources are found on a European and global level. These different energy carriers currently comprise fossil fuels such as natural gas and oil products but also cover heat and biofuels. Even with the continuous trend of electrification, a future-proof energy system also requires the integration and optimization of other clean energy carriers, such as heat, biomethane and hydrogen. Or as Angela Wilkinson, CEO of World Energy Council, puts it: “The reality is, to get renewables to scale we’re going to have other clean energy friends in the mix, we’re going to have to build multiple clean energy bridges”.

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Total final consumption (TFC) by source in NL (left), Europe (middle) and World (right)

This has also been acknowledged by Horizon Europe, the European Union’s Research and Innovation funding program, which opened the call “Renewable Energy Valleys to increase energy security while accelerating the green transition in Europe”. This call aims to fund projects that contribute to the implementation of the REPowerEU Plan, in particular to:

  • diversify gas supplies via higher levels of sustainable bio-methane (mainly based on organic waste and agricultural residues) and green hydrogen,
  • speed up Europe’s path to independence from fossil fuels by increasing the share of renewable energy (electricity, heat and fuels) in the European energy consumption.

As a project manager at New Energy Coalition I have gotten acquainted with multiple Horizon 2020 and Horizon Europe ‘Positive Energy Districts’ and ‘Hydrogen Valley’ projects co-funded by the European Union. In fact, New Energy Coalition has a great track record with its initiation, participation and coordination in Positive Energy Districts projects like MAKING-CITY, POCITYF, IANOS, Smile and InCUBE and two Hydrogen Valley projects being HEAVENN and Hydrogen Hub Noord-Holland. Whereas the first ones focus on generating more renewable energy than overall energy is being consumed in a (residential) district, the latter ones focus specifically on the entire chain and ecosystem of (clean) hydrogen in a broader valley with multiple end-users. ‘Renewable Energy Valleys’ combine best of both worlds as they cover the entire chain from production to end-usage of multiple renewable energy carriers in a broader energy positive valley with multiple end-users.

I have gotten the wonderful opportunity, with the invaluable support of my colleagues, to enter a consortium and co-write the proposal of the REFORMERS – Regional Ecosystems FOR Multiple-Energy Resilient Systems – project. The proposal has been awarded by Horizon Europe with a fund of €20M to develop, realize and replicate Renewable Energy Valleys across Europe. These Renewable Energy Valleys are characterized by an optimized and integrated multi-commodity energy system covering the entire chain of renewable energy generation, storage, conversion, distribution, and end-usage. The overarching aim of this five-year project is to increase energy security while accelerating the green transition and thereby contributing to Europe’s mission to become the first carbon neutral continent by 2050.

Last November, the project formally kick-started with the first general assembly where the 28 consortium members from 10 different countries visited REFORMERS’ ‘Flagship Valley’ in the city of Alkmaar and adjacent village of Heiloo (NL). Within this Flagship Valley, REFORMERS will:

  1. demonstrate renewable energy production technologies;
  2. convert, store and distribute renewable energy carriers such as biomethane, electricity, hydrogen and heat;
  3. replace the use of fossil fuels for end users;
  4. monitor, optimize and control energy flows;
  5. incorporate financial, legal and social dimensions;
  6. contribute to Alkmaar’s overall mission of using 100% renewable energy by 2050.

The developments within the Flagship Valley will be closely followed by six ‘Replication Valleys’ across Europe. These valleys will use the lessons learned from the Flagship Valley and replicate successful strategies and blueprints to create their own Renewable Energy Valley. Finally, REFORMERS will develop, test and operate a toolbox and digital twins to identify and continuously improve the best solutions towards self-sufficient energy valleys.

Being a wicked problem in an ever changing ecosystem, collaboration is key to accelerate the energy transition. Therefore, businesses, governmental bodies, grid operators, NGOs, knowledge and educational institutions are all included as consortium members of REFORMERS and partners of New Energy Coalition. This collaborative approach perfectly aligns with the mission of Future Energy Leaders, the Netherlands to empower youths to contribute to the energy landscape via intergenerational dialogue.

As the flagship Valley Coordinator of REFORMERS and a member of the Future Energy Leaders, the Netherlands I will be attending the 26th World Energy Congress in Rotterdam as an advocate of the Renewable Energy Valley framework. As a precursor to the congress, Future Energy Leaders The Netherlands is organizing a Road to Congress event on March the 4th in which REFORMERS is included as one of the interactive sessions. Hopefully, REFORMERS will inspire more valleys to integrate multiple clean energy carriers and optimize all energy flows to create a true future-proof energy system. The time is now to redesign energy for people and planet!

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Joep Sanderink is a project manager at New Energy Coalition as well as a member of the Future Energy Leaders NL. Through his work Joep aims to accelerate the energy transition for a sustainable future.

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