Earning money from sandpits

The Energy in Transition research group at THUAS has been active since 1 August. On Monday 28 January, Professor Sander Mertens gave a lunchtime lecture at The Lighthouse. “The future is already well on the way.”

Sander beats me to the punch. “At the moment, the scene in the Netherlands is reasonably chaotic. You can see the energy transition on the streets more and more. However, we are all still searching.” Everything was clear in the past, said the professor who has had a long career in sustainability. “We had fossil energy and that energy was reliable. We have now reached the point where our lifestyle is no longer tenable with a hugely rising growth in population.”

Trip to the future

According to Sander, It is difficult to determine a direction for the search for new energy. “To gain an insight into this, we first need to take a quick trip to the future and then return. That future is already well on the way. There has been a huge increase in the size of solar farms in countries with deserts. We often get the impression in the Netherlands that it is not happening so quickly. However, cheap desert land and plentiful sun make for a strong business model. You can see this in the price of solar energy, which is falling rapidly. These countries cannot use all of this energy themselves, and so it becomes an energy export. They’re earning good money from sandpits.”

Sun nations and wind nations

Sander sketched out a picture of new major energy players in the world. “There will be sun nations and wind nations. These gigantic, sustainable energy exporters will soon be at our back door. There is plenty of energy too. “If you covered the surface of Spain with solar panels, there would be enough energy for the entire world. Or you could cover 6 to 7 percent of the sea with wind turbines. That would also provide enough energy for everyone.”

Mismatch

So, the future is rosy. “Not entirely”, said Sander. “The problem is the mismatch. Sustainably generated energy is not always available at the required time and place. The sun shines during the day and we need energy at night.” According to the professor, this is why the cheapest sustainable energy comes from the most remote areas. “For instance deserts, but also oceans. The sea level is the calmest there which makes the yield the highest. After all, all this energy needs to be transported.”

Setting all sails to the wind

Finding solutions to these challenges is the field of research of the Energy in Transition research group. “The future lies in a Multi Commodity Grid. We should not electrify everything. Hydrogen, for instance, has amazing potential for energy storage.” We should also use the electricity grid more intelligently, according to the professor. A Smart Grid enables smarter, time-based deployment of energy. Take for instance a washing machine that switches itself on automatically when the sun shines. Aside from the technical possibilities, the professor also studies economic values, social aspects and regulation. “We look at the entire chain. Energy transition is also about eliminating noise pollution from a heat pump or removing the ban on the trade in energy. We have to set all sails to the wind.”