Board Talk: ‘We must change our energy system’

Good cooperation between science and industry can give the energy transition a significant boost. A conversation between Board members Mirjam van Praag and Yuri Sebregts. "Without these kinds of collaborations we simply cannot get through such large files."

How does the current crisis affect both organizations?

Van Praag: “The corona crisis hits the VU in our hearts. Recently 90 percent of our education took place online and we are now working hard on the challenge of restarting education on campus. We have to ‘go one and a half meters’ and can only teaching on campus outside rush hours, because there are restrictions on students traveling by public transport. That is a pretty difficult combination and so we are adapting and measuring a lot. The interesting thing is that our new strategy that we have been implementation this year addresses the ambition to become more agile and flexible. So this in itself is a good exercise. ”

Sebregts: “Flexible and agile are indeed words that come up every day with us at the moment. The consequences of this crisis are enormous. In the first place of course because of the human tragedy; we lost colleagues to corona. In addition, the economic contraction is affecting us hard, if only because fuel sales have fallen sharply. We try to keep the research in our technology center in Amsterdam as much as possible. Instead of 1,500 people there are now around 250 people, who only do the most essential laboratory work. The rest of the employees work from home. We look step by step at what is possible and adapt accordingly. ”

yuri sebregts energy transition shell

Yuri Sebregts, Executive Vice President Innovation and R&D and Chief Technology Officer Royal Dutch Shell

What do you think is the effect of this crisis on the energy transition in the Amsterdam Metropolitan Area?

Sebregts: “The enormous decrease in the number of trips also accelerates the decrease in the demand for displacement energy and I wonder whether this will return to the old level. On the other hand, the energy transition for many organizations is now temporarily not the top priority it does. Companies, both large and small, are now mainly concerned with staying afloat. How this will ultimately work out must become clear. And the question is whether that is relevant: we have to change, the current energy system is not sustainable in the long term. ”

“For many organizations, the energy transition is now temporarily not the top priority it had.”

Van Praag: “I share that analysis. I think that we have now been forced to discover that far fewer trips are needed and that that can be permanent. Another interesting aspect of this is, now that it appears that trips are less important, our world is much bigger. This could have a positive effect on the energy transition, because we will soon be choosing players who offer the best products rather than players nearby. What I think is bad for the energy transition is that the delay that is currently occurring in education and research has increased effect on people’s knowledge level. If there are several outbreaks, less knowledge will soon be available, for all kinds of matters and therefore also for the energy transition. It is therefore important that education can continue as much as possible. ”

What role does the energy transition play at Shell and the VU?

Sebregts : “In our technology center, we are practically doing nothing else. That goes without saying, because I work for one of the largest energy companies in the world. It is an enormous file of gigantic complexity. There are already quite sophisticated solutions for some challenges. For the electric car, for example, technology is already well developed and we still have to work on the right infrastructure. But how a steel company like Tata should make steel with almost no CO2 emissions; the technology still has to be devised to a large extent for this. We are working on all those aspects of the energy transition in our technology center. This is how we work on a large hydrogen factory for the Maasvlakte , with which we can eventually provide heavy road transport with hydrogen to move around. We hope this will give hydrogen as an energy carrier an extra boost. And together with Eneco we just have made an offer at a new wind farm in the North Sea: Hollandse Kust Noord. The intention is that the wind energy generated by this wind farm will supply the energy for the hydrogen factory on the Maasvlakte. ”

Van Praag: “We try to contribute to the energy transition in various ways. Sustainability is one of the three spearheads of our university. It is a research area that many scientists are involved in and we also let our students come into contact with sustainability issues in their courses. For example in our programs A Broader Mind and Community Service Learning in which students and researchers work on social themes. In it, the participants develop themselves and help society. Also with us Amsterdam Sustainability Institute , in which seven of our faculties work together, this theme is central. Another nice first is that, together with Naturalis and other parties, we have advanced plans for a center around it Anthropocene (the geological designation for the era in which we now live, ed.), about the influence of man on the world around us. Museum, research and education come together in this, and we also hope to collaborate with companies. ”

mirjam of prague energy transition

Mirjam van Praag, Chairman of the Executive Board of the Free University

How can the collaboration between business and science support the energy transition?

Van Praag: “That collaboration is indispensable. Interaction between society and knowledge institutions is necessary to achieve good research. Only then will you get answers that contribute to social issues.”

Sebregts: “I totally agree. Scientists within companies have often trained themselves in the practical side of their profession and less in the fundamental and theoretical aspects of it. That means that scientists within companies and universities complement each other. What is important is that the energy transition consists of many partial solutions. In the social debate, we now often see parties that are on the path of one partial solution, and that they are sometimes actively fighting the other partial solution. different companies, different universities, different authorities, each with their own perspective. Then you are talking about the whole and a broader support for a combination of those partial solutions arises. ”

Van Praag: “And what we should also not forget is that many companies are also created from scientific research. We have a nursery here for companies like that. Startups like Climecs and Veridis Instruments are the result of research, which is very nice. ”

You have already put this collaboration between science and industry into practice on many occasions. So are you in May, also with the University of Leiden, started an R&D collaboration in the field of quantum computing. What are the do’s and don’ts of such a collaboration?

Sebregts : “There is sometimes fear among the constituencies of the various parties. Fear of the loss of academic freedom. Should you use science for commercial purposes? Companies are sometimes afraid of losing their intellectual property, or fear that information will leak to the competitor. We must take all these concerns seriously, but they must not lead to a transactional collaboration that really stands in the way of action. I still find that a challenge. Mirjam, do you have ideas about how we can address concerns, but not make them a bottleneck?

“Yuri, would you like to look at how we can bring about a relational cooperation in the field of the energy transition?”

Van Praag: “As far as I am concerned, this fear of diminished scientific independence is not necessary. One of the reasons why companies want to cooperate with science is precisely that independence. It is in everyone’s interest that we remain independent. Yuri, would you like to further to this conversation, to look again at how we can achieve such a non-transactional, but a relational cooperation in the field of the energy transition? ”

Sebregts: “Absolutely. It is a challenge that I am aware that I have to tackle at my level.”

Van Praag: “Yes, me too.”

Sebregts: “And then we also have to keep our back straight if there is any doubt about it somewhere else in the organization. Because without these kinds of collaborations we simply cannot get through these kinds of big files. So absolutely, with this one. Promise!”

Text: Mirjam Streefkerk

Board Talk

The interview with Mirjam van Praag and Yuri Sebregts is part 4 in 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.

What the Board is doing within the energy transition

  • With our initiative LEAP we are at the beginning of impactful changes in the data center chain. Would you like to join the LEAP coalition and participate in a pilot, please contact: Marjolein Bot .
  • In the context of the corona crisis, the Board is working on economic recovery with respect for the climate challenge. Read here how we do that.
  • Read more about our metropolitan challenge Energy.
  • Read more about our metropolitan challenge Mobility.

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17 August 2020

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