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New energy in ImpactCity The Hague

OCTOBER 14, 2020

The Hague has evolved into a world leading centre of offshore wind technology. The region owes this position to the presence of a great many international energy, engineering and offshore companies as well as top energy research institutions such as Technical University Delft and TNO, but most of all perhaps to the fact that Siemens Gamesa has an important office in the city. In the company’s offices in The Hague the engineers of the world’s largest manufacturer of offshore wind turbines are doing the calculations that are used all over the world where new offshore wind parks are built.

“No offshore wind farm is built anywhere in the world by Siemens Gamesa that is not based on calculations that were made in The Hague”, say David-Pieter Molenaar, Managing Director, and Rob Kuilboer, Technical Sales Manager of Siemens Gamesa Renewable Energy BV, the Dutch branch of the global company that is headquartered in Spain.

Offshore wind is on the eve of spectacular growth in the Netherlands. The target of the Dutch government is to generate around 49 TWh per year of offshore wind energy by 2030 (which corresponds to 11,5 GW installed capacity). The current installed capacity is less than 1 GW. Kuilboer finds even this target too modest. “For us the target could be higher. The North Sea is big enough. And we want to have clarity on the post-2030 goals too as soon as possible.”

What is clear in any case is that offshore wind will become a mainstay of Dutch electricity supply. The Netherlands will be running to a large extent on offshore wind. This puts a heavy responsibility on the shoulders of the people in the wind industry.

“We are not afraid of that,” says Molenaar, who, like Kuilboer, graduated from a Dutch Technical University. He notes that the sector has made enormous progress in a very short time. “Costs have been reduced incredibly quickly. A couple of years ago substantial subsidies were needed. Now we have seen the first zero-subsidy contracts. At the same time, quality and technology have greatly improved. Our turbines are not simple machines any longer. They are equipped with complex power electronics. Reliability has hugely improved. Availability is now more than 99%.”

And all this while the turbines have to function under extreme climatological circumstances. “If you are standing on one of those platforms 25 metres above sea level you will find that it gets pretty rough out there.”

For Molenaar the progress in the sector shows that “a group of men and women have worked with a lot of enthusiasm to prove that it is possible to generate energy in this way in a cost-effective manner. That we have been able to build turbines standing in the sea, which produce energy reliably and competitively, is quite an achievement. We have underestimated the abilities of the people who wanted to achieve this.”

Heavy storms

A not insignificant number of these people work on the 6h floor of the Siemens Gamesa office in The Hague, where some 70 engineers do calculations on currents, ice loads, storms. Kuilboer: “Our engineers make sure that the turbines are able to function under all circumstances. In The Hague we are responsible in particular for the foundations of the turbine – the monopile and transition pieces. That includes the entire design of the farms. The other parts of our turbines are made in other countries.”

The fact that the foundations department is based in The Hague has historical reasons. “There is a lot of knowledge in this region on dynamics and controls. This department kept growing because of the high quality it delivered, partly thanks to collaboration with TU Delft and specialised engineering firms such as Fugro and Deltares and with the world-class offshore companies that are also located in this region.”

Initially there was some discussion whether Siemens Gamesa would be based in Delft or The Hague, says Molenaar, but he had a preference for The Hague. “Wind energy is broader than just the turbine. What matters is the entire chain, including energy policies. That’s why I preferred to be here with our other colleagues from the Siemens group, who, for example, work on hydrogen, and near the policymakers in The Hague.”

Molenaar says Dutch energy policy has worked out very well for the wind industry. “We managed to convince the government that they had to make a Masterplan for the North Sea, and that permits should take into account future developments. A permit that is outdated by the time it’s issued is useless. The permits we now get are a kind of shoebox within which we can work the way we like, as long as we keep to general nature and environmental legislation.”

What if a wind farm is taken out by a storm? Wouldn’t that be a big problem for electricity supply? “We have had some pretty heavy storms,” says Molenaar, “but the effects were not too bad. The farms are widely dispersed. And the turbines can be electronically disconnected from the grid. That works very well. Turbines can even be used to stabilise the grid. Not many people know that.”

Not enough interruptions

In fact, Molenaar has a different worry. “There are too few interruptions to send out our technicians. They are getting bored!” He adds that “this does not mean we can lean back. We can always improve performance and we must always take into account unexpected circumstances. But we have a lot of confidence in the future.”

There is still a lot of progress possible economically and technologically, says Kuilboer. “We can reduce costs even further, for example by sharing costs with other wind farms and by using the value of the electricity better, instead of purely producing on volume. With 3D technology we can improve the design. Whatever we do, our first priority is to bring cost down. If something reduces cost, we do it. If it doesn’t, we don’t.”

What if there is no wind? Wouldn’t that endanger electricity supply in the Netherlands? Molenaar: “To cope with that, you need storage.” To create enough storage is a task for which both national and local governments are well suited, he adds. “We have 8 million cars in the Netherlands. They drive only 1 hour a day on average. If all these cars are electric, it would leave huge battery capacity for the rest of the time. If the government mandates that car manufacturers make their EVs suitable for charging and decharging, you can stabilise your energy system in this way. You need to make sure of course that your infrastructure is ready for this. That could be an important task for municipal governments.”

Interestingly, Siemens Gamesa itself is also active in energy storage. The company has developed a unique electric thermal energy storage (ETES) system that works with volcanic rocks, and which is much cheaper than electric batteries. Siemens believes the system could play a key role in the stabilisation of the grid in future. (See box.)

Public support

Siemens Gamesa is very happy to be located in The Hague, say Molenaar and Kuilboer. “For us this is a very good location. It is has excellent public transport connections and is close to Schiphol airport. That’s been of great benefit to us.”

Molenaar stresses that it is very important for the wind industry to have strong roots in the local and regional economy. “As sector we still have to fight established interests. That is why it’s essential that we offer a lot of employment. That creates public support.”

The company pays a lot of attention to the image of wind energy in the Netherlands. Molenaar: “We have worked hard to turn around the image of windmills as machines that ‘run on subsidies’. We have given a lot of presentations, talked to policymakers. We give them all the information they need, completely transparently. There are not many engineers in politics. That’s not a problem, but the energy transition is also a technological process. We try to help there, to distinguish myths from facts.”

The company is also very active in education. Molenaar: “Four, five years ago we started collaborating with the technical universities. We have had some 80 trainees from these universities, half of whom now work for us. More recently we have also become active in vocational schools. We make sure teachers are able to work with the most modern equipment. We also try to make it clear to students what is expected of them if they choose a career in offshore wind. This kind of work takes a lot of discipline.”

Synergies with other companies and research institutions in the region are also very important for the company, notes Molenaar. He gives an example. “In the past turbines were designed in parts – the monopile, the transition piece, the nacelle, the blades. We made an integral design of the entire turbine which uses a lot less steel. We could not have done this without collaboration with TU Delft and other research institutions and companies. As a result we are the only ones in the world now who are able to deliver a certified ice load design. That’s the advantage of being in this region. Here is where it all comes together.”