Koen Overtoom: ‘Who gets energy: industry, households or charging stations?’

The energy transition is desperately needed, but a fully-fledged sustainable energy system is still under development. Board member and CEO at the Port of Amsterdam, Koen Overtoom, talks about the tension on the energy grid.

Will we still be able to charge cars at our office? Is there enough energy to run a distribution center 24/7? The pressure on the energy network in the Amsterdam Metropolitan Area is increasing. “If we want to be and remain a sustainably connected region, we have to solve the energy issue,” says Koen Overtoom. “The challenge is great: the built environment, mobility and industry are now all working on sustainability. But we don’t yet have a smart supra system in which we combine all the different forms of energy.”

Windmills and solar panels

Such a fully-fledged system can only come about if companies, government and knowledge institutions join forces, says Overtoom. And that is precisely why it is so important that this topic has the utmost priority on the Board’s agenda. “We have stopped the coal-fired power station in the port, but we do not yet have enough wind turbines at sea and not enough solar panels to meet the increasing demand for energy. We are working hard on hydrogen, but we cannot yet use it widely for energy generation.”

And that has serious consequences. Overtoom: “It could mean that we will soon have to choose: do we give the energy to industry, to households, the charging stations or to data centers? We have to make policy choices about this. At the same time: how should we deal with this in a smart way? We also have to deal with a very tight labor market. There are simply not enough people to install all the charging stations at the moment.”

Hydrogen from steel

In the metropolitan region, organizations such as the Port Authority, network operators Alliander and Tennet, Gasunie, Vattenfall, Schiphol and Tata are already fully engaged in the increasing pressure on the energy network. Overtoom: “Tata wants to make steel from hydrogen, for example, and can thus become the driver of the hydrogen economy. Hydrogen and electricity will soon form the basis of a diversified system with which we can meet the demand for energy.”

This diversification of the current energy system is one of the solutions. The other two – for which the Port Authority and Alliander are joining forces – are making smarter use of the existing infrastructure and also intensifying that infrastructure. “The latter means that Alliander will now build additional substations in the port area, so that we can put more strain on the current infrastructure. We have made room for that.”

Smart exchange of energy

Making the network more flexible is also a solution, says Overtoom. “The current network is constructed in such a way that it can already be loaded quite heavily. This means that there is a lot of unused space outside peak times. If we deal with this in a smarter way, for example with mutual agreements, we can prevent overload.” In the port itself, the Shared Energy Platform is an example of this. This startup, which emerged from the port authority, ensures that companies in the Amsterdam port area can exchange energy. The idea behind this can also be applied to other industrial areas or business parks, says Overtoom. “It’s about smartly matching supply and demand.”

“We will soon be importing a lot of hydrogen. As a port, we play an important role in that.”

Overtoom also expects a lot from the hydrogen economy, which has yet to get underway almost everywhere in the world. “It is impossible for us to generate all the hydrogen that Tata will need in the future. So I think we will soon be importing a lot of that hydrogen. As a port, we again play an important role in this. During the climate summit in Glasgow, grand plans were presented to start producing electrolysers on a large scale.” Electrolysers are hydrogen factories that produce green hydrogen via electrolysis. With electric current, water is split into oxygen and hydrogen.

Safe hydrogen granules

Innovation plays an important role in all solutions. The Port Authority is now conducting research into hydrogen granules, which are safer and easier to store than hydrogen in gaseous form. On the Neo Orbis, the new presentation vessel in the harbour, this is researched together with TU Delft. The pilot is part of the European project H2SHIPS. Experiments are also underway with sustainable shore power for container and cruise ships in the port.

Collaboration with knowledge institutions is essential for these innovations, says Overtoom. “They are needed to discover new technologies and explore their feasibility and they help us to turn temporary solutions into structural solutions. It is not without reason that we are also going to work more closely with higher education in our new startup center, Prodock 2.0. And Shell recently announced that it will open its lab to organizations from outside Shell, who can use all these facilities. This collaboration between the business community and knowledge institutions is of great importance for the energy transition.”

Priorities on the agenda

Close cooperation with the government is also necessary in order to be able to continue to manage the tension on the energy grid in the future. “I think the key to the solution is that we plan more integrally. Economy, sustainability, planning and infrastructure are now often separate issues for the various governments, with different organizations and separate administrative portfolios. We need to bring all those parties together and let them prioritize together. Maybe that means there’s no room for a new data center. Of course we don’t make the policy at the Board, but we can discuss and put important topics on the agenda here. And then every organization can then get to work with that as effectively as possible.”

Text: Mirjam Streefkerk

More Board Talk

The interview with Koen Overtoom is part 12 of the Board Talk series. In this series we talk with Board members about the biggest challenges for the Amsterdam metropolis. A region which offers healthy, sustainable living, responsible digitalisation and meaningful work for everyone. These are also the most important themes for the Amsterdam Economic Board. Read more interviews in the Board Talk series.

29 November 2021

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