Energy transition takes shape at Shell Pernis
Curious about how the energy transition is literally taking shape? Then take a look at Shell in Pernis. On the so-called Energy and Chemicals Park Rotterdam, next to the existing refinery, a huge biofuels plant is being built. This plant, with a capacity of 820,000 tons per year, will be one of the largest in Europe. This way, Shell is helping its customers reduce their CO2 emissions.
Project director Rob Snoeren hands out earplugs immediately upon arrival at the site. No unnecessary luxury, because the pile drivers are working overtime. The construction site, some 28 soccer fields in size, offers an impressive sight, showing confidence in the future. Because choosing Rotterdam as the location for such a mega-investment is not a matter of course.
The factory has been named HEFA. Not exactly a flashy name, but one that covers the load, says Rob. 'It stands for Hydrogenated Esters and Fatty Acids. This name reflects the process, in which you take apart molecules using hydrogen and a catalyst and then convert them into biodiesel or SAF: Sustainable Aircraft Fuel. The fact that we can make both products in this plant makes it unique.' The raw materials at the new plant no longer come from petroleum, but from vegetable oils (no palm oil or other oils intended for food), animal fats and used frying oils. 'The latter category is particularly interesting,' Rob knows, 'because we are then making a new usable product from waste.' The fuels produced are CO2 neutral and therefore reduce our customers' CO2 emissions.
New power grid
Other things that make the plant special are that it is flexible in the power supplies used and will include its own hydrogen plant for hydrogenation, which will be fed from light residual gases coming from the cracker. Finally, CO2 released during production will be captured and stored in empty gas fields under the North Sea through the Porthos project. For the construction, Shell was able to obtain a permit by making a number of adjustments to the construction process to reduce nitrogen emissions. Among other things, instead of the initially planned use of diesel generators, it was decided to build a construction power grid. The plant will have its own electricity connection. 'We found an available connection at a sub-distribution station in Hoogvliet, after which we laid 1.6 kilometers of power line underground,' Rob explains.
Cooperation with contractors
A key success factor in the construction of this biofuel plant, Rob believes, ‘is our excellent cooperation with the contractors. We don't prescribe the law to them, but have integrated teams consisting of experts in all the disciplines involved. We sit down very early with the contractors to ask them what they think are the smartest solutions. In addition, we believe in what we call "Care for People." We take good care of the people who work here, whether they are from Shell, work for a contractor or for a supplier. In doing so, we achieve a motivated team, which performs better in terms of safety, health and quality. And there is room for cheer: every two months we make sure we have something to celebrate. Rob prides himself on having succeeded in creating a pleasant working environment in which people like to work as well as do a good job. And do you know why? Because my experience is that you can work miracles if you really listen to your contractors and use their knowledge to the maximum. In my opinion, it is better to say 'you are the experts, tell us how it should be done' than 'here is a contract and just do what we say'.'
The pace of construction is fast. 'Shell has gone through a learning process in this,' Rob states. 'Just to be clear: this is really a very big project, of a magnitude that you only experience once in your career. So in itself it's no wonder that even a big company like Shell needs time to make such an investment decision. But this time we moved very quickly. The first explorations started in 2019, we tied the knot within two years, and as you can see we are now in full construction. I love having this under my belt. Here you see tangible proof that we really mean it when we say we are changing for a cleaner future.'
Just the beginning
The construction of HEFA is an important step in making Shell more sustainable. Rob: 'This biofuels plant is big, but really just the beginning. In fact, we are going to build biofuel plants in more places around the world. And closer to home, the next step is the construction of our green hydrogen plant Holland Hydrogen One on the Second Maasvlakte.' For the Pernis location, the construction is very important, Rob knows. 'Now you see that there is a rock-solid belief in the future of this location, and that there is an industry that is reinventing itself. This is also important for the future prospects of the people who work here. And for the suppliers and contractors. As an important "side benefit," I notice that this project makes it easier to interest young people in working for Shell. They want to be able to proudly tell about their work at a party and sometimes have trouble with the fossil industry. Now they can say: I am working on the energy transition. As an old hand in the business, it surprised me how important this is for the new generation. If I had asked them earlier to build an "ordinary factory," they would not have wanted to, but now they do. I love experiencing that.’
Biofuels from Rotterdam
By building the new biofuels plant, Shell is helping to reduce CO₂ emissions from energy use. The plant is actually part of a larger project, as it naturally also involves a whole trading process of buying and selling, in a commodity market that is new to Shell. The raw materials arrive by ship at Vopak's storage terminal in Vlaardingen. From there they go to pre-treatment: a plant that purifies the oils of metals and other undesirable elements. Then it goes to the cracking plant, where the oil is converted into biodiesel or biokerosene. And finally the products go by ship to customers.
Bilfinger Tebodin provided the design and engineering of the pre-treatment plant. They also helped with the permit process and the environmental impact assessments. Moreover, within the joint venture SIPs, Bilfinger is responsible for scaffolding construction, insulation and painting. Shell will commission the plant in mid-2025.