DELFT ENERGY INITIATIVE

‘Our added value is in system integration’

 

The energy transition is the most comprehensive action we can take to combat further climate change
By: Jurjen Slump

With around a thousand scientists, TU Delft is one of Europe’s largest research institutes in the field of energy. As such, the university is playing an important role in the energy transition, innovation and in the debate in society. So, what makes TU Delft so distinctive and how does the university intend to accelerate the energy transition? We put it to Professor of Energy Systems Analysis and Chair of the Delft Energy Initiative Kornelis Blok, Professor of Energy Systems and Dean of the Faculty of Applied Sciences Paulien Herder and Rector Magnificus and President of the Executive Board Tim van der Hagen.

All three agree: TU Delft’s strength lies in the variety of its fundamental research and its application. Whether it concerns wind and solar energy, hydrogen, new synthetic fuels or nuclear energy: fundamental research is being conducted on all types of energy technology and there are tests on new applications, together with partners in the field labs on TU Delft Campus. “We have everything under one roof here”, says Herder. “From very fundamental research to extremely applied.”

That means you can address the key challenges at system level in order to make the energy transition a success. “Take hydrogen – on the supply side, we have a great deal of knowledge of offshore renewables”, explains Blok. He also chairs the anniversary committee. “When it comes to the production of hydrogen or synthetic fuels, we also have experts in electrochemical processes. And we have research groups working on transport, logistics and the markets on which renewable energy is traded.”

The same applies for the transition of the built environment. “Not only do we have people who know how to generate geothermal energy sustainably in order to heat buildings, but also how to transport it to offices and households, how the heating system is arranged and how you organise the heating market.” All of these examples show that TU Delft ultimately offers added value at system level. “System integration is what we’re good at. There are very few research institutes that can cover the whole gamut”, says Blok.

Centre of expertise

 

Because of this, TU Delft can take on the position of centre of expertise in the energy transition, says Van der Hagen. “Whenever policymakers, ministers or politicians have questions, they know they need to turn to us.” The Rector Magnificus believes that the energy transition is moving too slowly. “As a university, it’s our moral responsibility to make acceleration possible.”

Education, research and innovation in the field of energy have a multidisciplinary structure. Everything comes together in the Delft Energy Initiative, which is led by Blok. Four institutes are part of it: the Wind Energy Institute, the Urban Energy Institute, the PowerWeb Institute and the e-Refinery Institute. Thanks to the Social Innovation Platform, there is also plenty of focus on the ethical and social aspects of the energy transition.

All of this means that there is significant expertise available, but much more research is needed to make the energy transition a success. This applies to almost any technology that can play a role. Herder mentions a few examples. It is already possible to develop green fuels directly from carbon dioxide in the lab. “But, doing that on the scale of Pernis and Moerdijk will take decades”, explains Herder. Upscaling these kinds of processes will require a lot more fundamental research.”

Take solar energy, for example. The cost may have fallen, but the materials are often not recyclable. Some fundamental material research will be needed to achieve circularity. Then there is the complete digitalisation of the energy system, which calls for a great deal of research into data and artificial intelligence. We’re doing that in Delft in the ESP Lab.

Urgency


Herder is also keen to emphasise the university’s role in the debate within society. “As a university, we must stress how urgent the energy transition is.” This is not to imply that TU Delft should set the direction of travel. “Our role is to provide options for politics: across a range of technologies, we’ve developed insights into the technology and know what the pros and cons are”, she says.

This is why TU Delft is not ruling out research into nuclear energy. “The climate problem is too important to casually exclude a particular technology”, says Blok. “Across the world, nuclear energy is already playing a major role as a CO2-free source of energy.” The nuclear energy research in Delft is focusing on the next generation of nuclear energy generated using thorium reactors. This could be a promising technology for the longer term: cleaner, safer and more sustainable.

Our role is to provide options for politicians: across a range of technologies, we’ve developed insights into the technology and know what the pros and cons are

Paulien Herder

Accelerator Team


In order to emphasise the urgency, TU Delft is establishing an Accelerator Team: a group of ten young and talented scientists – from across all faculties – who together embody the university’s vision on the energy transition. “The Accelerator Team serves an important function”, says Blok. “They’re all energy scientists making a difference with their research. By focusing on the themes they’re working on, we hope to accelerate research and innovation. They will also showcase TU Delft’s position in various ways.”

Future Energy Labs are also being established, with a view to accelerating innovation in the energy transition across seven themes, together with several partners. Blok, Herder and Van der Hagen all agree that the Netherlands could also be acting faster when it comes to innovation. For example, the Rector Magnificus would like to see more long-term multidisciplinary research programmes in which the brightest brains collaborate. “Achieving the energy transition will require radical and revolutionary innovation. That’s why it's important to think across disciplines.” Herder adds that the costs of new technologies can quickly fall if the government applies a stable and targeted innovation policy, as was the case with offshore wind.

 

Climate change


Acceleration, acceleration, acceleration. That is the underlying theme. Ultimately, the energy transition will be essential in limiting further climate change. “Energy consumption is the largest source of greenhouse gases. The energy transition is the most comprehensive action we can take to combat further climate change,” says Van der Hagen.

Blok takes the same view. The professor has spent his entire career working to improve the sustainability of the energy supply and is also a member of the UN's IPCC climate panel. “I started out in energy, but have found myself up to my ears in efforts to combat climate change.”

Herder simply has to get on her bike to see what she is working for. In Zuid-Holland, all the major issues that the energy transition involves come together. TU Delft is right at the centre of that. “We need to achieve almost all these innovations literally in our own back yard. That really helps our students and staff to see the point of it all”, she explains. “If you cycle here and see the Rotterdam port area, you understand: all of this needs to change.”

 

 

The energy transition is the most comprehensive action we can take to combat further climate change

Tim van der Hagen
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