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Interview

Mart van Bracht – Managing Director, TNO Energy – Netherlands

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Mart Van Bracht of the TNO discusses the organization’s hybrid nature as a state owned, but independently managed research and technology organization, as well as its current innovative projects in the energy sector.

TNO is working to ensure sustainable, reliable and efficient energy supply through innovation. I was wondering if you could expand on some key areas of work for TNO in this regard?

First of all, TNO is a peculiar organization: an RTO, or research and technology organization which was founded in the early 1930s. The principle objective of the organization is to stimulate innovation within Dutch society. TNO is a state owned, but independently managed entity, run on an non-profit basis. TNO can work for the benefit of companies operating here in the Netherlands, and also for Dutch society in a wider sense. There are approximately 4,000 employees working for the institute, focused on five research areas; urbanization, food and health, high-tech systems, defense and security and energy.

The TNO energy unit has again, its own focus- the traditional oil and gas sector, but also look at offshore activity, new wind farms and marine structures and lastly also clean energy systems- from solar to smart grid technology. We have a large program focused on energy consumption reduction within the built environment. The sustainable energy research activities have grown extensively over the last five years in particular.

The energy section has a budget of 80 million euros a year, and 7-800 employees who work from that budget. As such, TNO represents one of the larger players conducting research in this field in Europe. We work closely with universities and other research bodies, going as far to share facilities with universities- including here in Utrecht. The manner in which TNO seeks to differentiate itself from university research however, is that TNO seeks applicable solutions. To make innovations work and deliver.

Nowadays, innovation is something you do together. TNO teams up with other actors to stimulate qualitative change in technology. The government views our success in terms of the number of new patents arising from our work, or how many jobs arise from our activity.

Some TNO publications have covered the prospects for shale gas as a stimulating force for the Dutch economy. To what extent in your opinion can this resource contribute towards the EBN’s 30/30 objectives for example?

TNO has undertaken intensive research on the subject of shale gas resources within the country. Unfortunately, our estimates are approximate- there is not sufficient data available as yet. However, we consider that it can make an important contribution toward the 30/30 objectives. Many of the main fields are approaching the end of their lifetime, however, and shale gas could offer a route to, in part, replace this lost productive capacity. Exploration drilling is required to fully understand the potential of this resource.

In 2013, EBN released a seismic study of the Northern Dutch North Sea. To what extent is exploration still the name of the game here in the Netherlands?

There is still some room for exploration, but EBN in this study were principally covering the remaining ‘white spots’ in the North Sea geological map. The last new fields are in this area- most of the increase in production however, must come out of existing fields. Enhanced oil recovery is essential, and along with EBN, TNO is investigating intensively possible means by which to improve recovery rates. The operators have are extremely interested in field life extension and for re-opening stranded fields, and so our work is extremely important to these enterprises.

For example, one important topic we cover is liquid loading- reducing the amount of water that wells produce using more intelligent production systems or new materials, such as coatings for wells to prevent water ingress. 

As a geologist, can you tell us what prospects the pipeline network in the North Sea has for delivering carbon capture and storage?

We have perfect infrastructure for CCS operations and used gas fields in which to store this byproduct. CO2 can also be used to assist production of gas. It is used in limited means already, but as yet CCS does not have sufficient political support. This means, unfortunately that CCS projects are still waiting for better days. In Rotterdam, the first CCS project in the North Sea is awaiting final funding. This would be an important project for TNO and for the operators, as a working pilot scheme however, a small amount of funding remaining before the project can move ahead is still to be located.

TNO has been involved in the ‘CATO’ program, a significant research program investigating CO2 geological storage. There have been two CATO phases already, moving from theoretical to practical implementation, and CATO III will see the scheme tested in ‘real life conditions.’ This is a vitally important pilot project- it could pave the way for a great deal of investment in this field. As a precedent, it would allow such schemes to progress past a threshold which would deliver this solution into mainstream thinking. I am convinced that geological storage of carbon is one of the key routes to solve the issue of climate change created by hazardous carbon emissions. Public perceptions with regard to CCS are still, less than positive unfortunately.

LNG is being introduced in the Netherlands on a greater scale. One justification for this change is in part, the reduced carbon emissions associated with this fuel. How has TNO contributed towards the introduction of this fuel to the Netherlands?

TNO has contributed toward several research programs, principally focused on small scale uses of the fuel. This includes bringing the fuel from the GATE terminal towards a wider spread of distribution points, whereby smaller scale users can access the fuel. Stimulating the value chain for LNG to be properly utilized means that all players throughout the chain will see some benefit from the fuel. Everyone has to benefit- not just a centralized retailer, or successive infrastructure and assets which distribute the fuel, will simply not appear.

With the Dutch objectives in terms of increasing domestic production of gas combined with increasing import of coal, cheapened in America by their shale gas revolution, is this a perfect storm for clean fuels here?

Of TNO’s oil and gas research, 80 percent is undertaken in the Middle East, or Latin America. Here in the Netherlands we have significant gas reserves and our economy depends on this gas. A quarter of the state’s income is directly attributable to gas, or gas related activities. Many of our other key industries, from logistics to petrochemicals are also derived from our relationship with gas. This country lives on natural gas, but many policy makers do not recognize this- they prioritise renewables. However, the Dutch national interest is founded on fossil fuels. Of course, we must make an effort to reduce our carbon emissions- but this is best done within the context of the oil and gas industry’s dominance here in the Netherlands. The question should not be about competition, but about complementarity- I see our future as a cleaner, greener one, but still one very much reliant on gas resources.

The Dutch golden age – when Dutch traders circled the globe- was founded on innovation and aspiration. To rejuvenate this country’s economy, to reach a new golden age, the Dutch public must simply renew its adventurous, innovative and ambitious spirit.

Click here to read more articles and interviews from the Netherlands, and to download the latest free oil and gas report on the country.

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