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Gasunie goes for hydrogen

Suddenly things are moving at lightning speed: as early as 2023, Gasunie is laying a hydrogen network in the Netherlands. This network will largely use the existing infrastructure for natural gas and connect producers and customers in the large industrial clusters with each other, with a hydrogen storage facility and with the hydrogen networks in Germany and Belgium. In this, HyStock - Gasunie's hydrogen storage project - is an important link. Eddie Lycklama à Nijeholt and Bart Kuijlman are responsible for these mega-projects of Gasunie and tell more about its opportunities and challenges.

Only a few years ago, the first ideas about hydrogen as a serious alternative to natural gas emerged. Especially if you can produce hydrogen "green," it can be both the fuel and feedstock of the future. Producing green means: splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen via electrolysis with renewable electricity from sun and wind. ‘Hydrogen is fascinating stuff,’ thinks Bart Kuijlman. He has a lot of experience in renewable fuels and raw materials. 'Four years ago I ended up in the hydrogen business and found it so interesting that I decided to focus myself one hundred percent on hydrogen. That's why two years ago I chose the company that is furthest ahead with this: Gasunie. Now I focus mainly on how we can design the storage of hydrogen. HyStock plays a key role in this.'


Starting with industry

Hydrogen storage is needed to allow the new hydrogen network Gasunie is working on to "breathe". Eddie Lycklama à Nijeholt has this network under his belt. He has worked for Gasunie for 33 years in various roles. ‘I did mechanical engineering assignments as well as IT and project management,’ Eddie says. 'I participated in the gas traffic circle program, carried out major pipeline projects, was CIO, did business development and worked on the energy terminal for the import of liquefied natural gas (LNG) in Brunsbüttel. And now I'm active in Gasunie's hydrogen networking program.' That starts with a network between the seaports and industry, Eddie knows. 'A conscious choice, because the challenge for both industry and Gasunie is clear: we must move towards emission-free energy supply and production. In this you have to start with the biggest emitter and that is industry. That is why we initially focused on the five large regional energy clusters in the Netherlands: Chemelot, Zeeland, Rotterdam, North Sea Canal Area and Northern Netherlands. That's where we want to start and then we're going to connect the clusters, and expand the network further into our neighboring countries.'


Reusing natural gas pipelines

A major advantage of this mega-project is that 85 percent of the hydrogen network is already in place, because many natural gas pipelines can be reused. Eddie: 'But of course adjustments have to be made; you can't just stop using natural gas completely and put hydrogen in the pipes instead. In addition, our customers - for example the factories - are not going to switch from natural gas to hydrogen overnight. Those plants, too, still need to be made suitable for receiving and using hydrogen.' What is challenging here is the timing and planning of the customers and producers. 'So we have to discuss a lot with the companies at what time they want to switch and how much they need,' Eddie says. 'Balancing supply and demand is important here. For each cluster we have to balance supply and demand, and we have to make sure that the clusters are interconnected so that, for example, one cluster can benefit from a surplus in another. But we are used to all these organizational issues from way back at Gasunie.'


Hydrogen is also gas

More than sixty years of experience explains why Gasunie is leading the way in hydrogen network development. Bart: 'Right here in Groningen there are decades of experience with energy transport and we have connections with all facets of the energy market. That puts us in a unique position. Moreover, we all know that natural gas will eventually come to an end and Gasunie also wants to continue to play a social role in energy supply.' Eddie adds, ‘Groningen is home to what I call 'the brains”. We have experience in gas transport and storage, and after all, hydrogen is also a gas. We also know how to balance a gas network and we know the requirements of integrity management of a pipeline network. After all, safety is always the highest priority.'


Stumbling blocks

Possible stumbling blocks in the rapid development of the hydrogen network consist mainly of organizational issues. 'Conversion of the natural gas network to a hydrogen network is not a technical challenge,' argues Eddie. 'We have researched and tested it, we know it can be done and we are going to do it. But licensing is a challenge. I don't expect insurmountable problems for our project because the existing pipelines have been there for a long time. The shortage of labor could become a problem. A lot of technical adjustments need to be made to the installations and we, like many other organizations, need a lot of technically skilled people to do that. The delivery time and price of many materials are also problematic. And a very important challenge is balancing the grid. Most of the hydrogen will be made with electrolysis, using electricity from wind power. But the wind doesn't always blow hard. So to always have enough green hydrogen, you have to take measures like hydrogen import terminals. But for really good balancing, we need hydrogen storage.'


HyStock: storage in salt caverns

And that brings us back to HyStock. Bart: ‘HyStock is a project in which we are making four new salt caverns suitable for the storage of hydrogen. We will realize these in the Northern Netherlands in the coming years. That works as follows: by dissolving the salt in underground salt layers with water, you create underground cavities. These are cigar-shaped, they are at a depth of 1,200 meters and are up to three hundred meters deep. We currently have six caverns in use for the storage of natural gas and four more are being added that we are making suitable for the storage of hydrogen. Above ground there will also be a plant with other compressors specifically for hydrogen compression. The engineering of the above-ground plant is being done by Bilfinger Tebodin. In the past year, we have already conducted extensive testing with a mini-cavity in an existing borehole. You can see HyStock as the "lungs" of the hydrogen network,' Bart believes. 'We ensure that the network can breathe with supply and demand. By 2027, the first storage facility should be operational for the market.'


Do not underestimate

The role of hydrogen in the future energy supply should not be underestimated, Eddie believes: ‘Industry is facing a major task to reduce emissions and you can't electrify everything. That's just practically impossible, with the amount of energy required. Just the required space in the landscape is not there. Moreover, you can move about ten times more energy with gas than you can through the electricity grid. So we need both electrons and molecules in the energy supply of the future.'


No time to waste

Asset owners should think carefully about adapting their processes to hydrogen instead of natural gas, is the advice of both Bart and Eddie. 'Still this year, think carefully about the relationship between electrification and hydrogen. Taking into account your energy consumption and the possibilities and limitations of the electricity grid. And take into account the investments involved. There is no time to lose, because it will be 2030 before you know it.' A final tip from Bart is, ‘Look beyond your own location. You are part of a chain and chain dependency will only increase in the coming years. With natural gas, you could just open or close the tap a little further. Soon with hydrogen, it really listens more closely what the chain party before or after you does.'

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