Energy is a driver of economic activity, personal development, and social participation in civic life. That is why, for professor of Smart Energy Systems Zofia Lukszo, the energy transition is about much more than reducing CO2 emissions. ‘Our future energy system should not only be sustainable, but also inclusive – dependable, available and affordable for everyone.’
Certainly, she now has two grandchildren as well as young PhD-students from far corners of the earth where daily life can be hard. But her strong sense of social responsibility dates back to when she studied both math and philosophy. ‘These studies shaped my engineering mindset,’ she says. ‘Mathematics taught me to reduce complexity to its essence, and thanks to philosophy I learned about ethical systems and various other cultures.’ A perfect foundation for her research in Complex Socio-Technical Systems Engineering.
More than technology
‘Large transformations, such as the ongoing energy transition, are not realised with technology alone. Think of economics, cybersecurity, social values, and governance; how will the new technology be operated, safeguarded, managed? We’ll not only have competing technologies, but entire sectors that will be competing – such as the transport sector and the processing industry who will both want to make the switch to (scarce) green hydrogen. Zofia: ‘All the more important for us to study the rules of the playing field, and how various actors will behave – all the way down to the individual consumer.’ No wonder that she feels perfectly at home at the Faculty of Technology, Policy and Management.
Against the current
For Zofia, our future sustainable energy system will be an integrated energy-hydrogen system. ‘Hydrogen allows vast quantities of clean energy to be stored, and it can be easily transported from A to B,’ she says. ‘It can therefore help balance fluctuations in wind and solar energy. It can also be used as fuel for the (heavy) transport sector and as an energy source for the steel industry. And in conjunction with captured carbon, it can serve as a raw material for the fabrication of plastics, thereby reducing the oil dependency of the chemical industry.
A bit headstrong and going against the current, she already submitted a hydrogen-related research proposal ten years ago. In that project, she investigated whether hydrogen fuelled cars could serve as powerplants in the built environment – as an emergency generator for hospitals, for instance. ‘At that time, the common belief was that hydrogen would not play any role in our energy and transport systems. But the tides have changed as there are various applications – such as heavy transport, green steel and as a building block for the petrochemical industry – for which an electrical solution is still not in sight.’
Only ten years ago, the common belief was that hydrogen would not play any role in our energy and transport systems
In her current research, she develops models for the production, storage, and transport of hydrogen, in symbiosis with the existing electrical grid. Some of these models are based purely on the laws of nature, such as the conservation of energy. More often, the models cover technology and the behaviour of various actors. ‘Policy objectives and legislation make up the framework within which the actors operate and to which they adjust their behaviour. For example: what happens if we restructure the European Union emissions trading system – which serves as an incentive for emission reduction investments by putting a price on CO2 emissions – or if we establish a hydrogen bank that guarantees the purchase of green hydrogen, thereby promoting an increase in production capacity?’
By improving the interplay between technology, actors, and legislation, Zofia hopes to get us to an energy neutral Europe by 2050. ‘Those are the words of Ursula von der Leyen,’ she says. ‘As for me, let’s also use this transition to also address societal disparities. There are entire groups of people in the Netherlands that are unable to access essential energy services and products. In other words: energy poverty. It is a term I already used prior to the Ukraine war, and it has only become more of a pressing issue.’
Large transformations, such as the ongoing energy transition, are not realised with technology alone
Hydrogen at sea
She co-edited a book about an inclusive energy transition# which, for example, stresses that energy-poor households are hit much harder by rising energy prices. All the more reason to investigate how energy can remain affordable after the transition. In an ongoing research project, Zofia and her colleagues looked at offshore wind farms, investigating where to best convert the energy generated into hydrogen. Their model included local wind speeds, the location of existing submarine power cables and gas pipelines, water depths, multi-year predictions of the demand for electricity and hydrogen, and much more.
They found that the costs associated with the conversion of electrical power (from direct current to alternating current and from low voltage to high voltage – and back again) were a major determining factor. ‘Up to 75 kilometres from shore, it is cheapest to transport the energy generated to shore as electricity, and there convert it to hydrogen if needed. But from 100 kilometres up it is more efficient and cheaper to integrate an electrolyser into every wind turbine, and then transport hydrogen to land by means of pipelines.’
The recently funded HyChain-ESI project focusses on the emerging hydrogen economy as a whole, in relation to industry, heavy transport, and the built environment. Next to investigating the desired technical characteristics of such an integrated energy and hydrogen system, she also looks into system uncertainties. What will the impact be of uncertainties in the production capacity of, the demand for, and the price of hydrogen? And should hydrogen storage be organised at a national or a European level? ‘These questions are about the robustness of various designs and solutions, to which we apply a mathematical approach.’
Our models take uncertainties into account to yield robust solutions
Let's get moving
Innovative technology, future uncertainties, competition, energy poverty – and only very limited time to realise the energy transition. One could lose heart, but rather than dampening her spirits, these challenges energize and motivate Zofia. ‘Some people say that it is impossible, to which I answer: “Let’s figure out what we must do to make it possible.” A key aspect is for our research results to make it into education as well. Besides, if you treat students as your equals, their questions and comments will inspire you.’ So, next to co-designing the future inclusive energy system, Zofia also passes her knowledge and drive on to the next generation(s). ‘Let me emphasise this one more time: you cannot transform a large system with methods and algorithms alone. We must include everyone.’
#The book “Shaping an Inclusive Energy Transition” can be downloaded for free here.