The Reactor Centrum Nederland (RCN), known today as the Energy research Centre of the Netherlands, was established in 1955. It specialised in the development of atomic power - later called ‘nuclear energy’ - in the Netherlands and its objective was the peaceful application of ‘the atom’. It was met with tense anticipation. Energy (still largely obtained from coal at the time) was expensive, dusty, dirty, laborious and dangerous. Atomic power held the promise of a magnitude of inexpensive and clean energy, enough to meet the needs of generations to come.
Initiatives to participate in this development were launched in the Netherlands as well. The Government wanted to safeguard the energy system; industry wanted to develop new products. Norwegian-Dutch collaboration had already been underway for some time at the nuclear research reactor in Kjeller (Norway), so the Dutch decided to build their own reactor. This High Flux Reactor (HFR) was constructed in Petten (North Holland), at a safe distance from population centres and close to cooling water. After a number of years, partly under the firm hand of Mr Jaap Goedkoop, RCN became the organisation to put the High Flux Reactor into use and run it.
At the same time, RCN, with full financial backing from the then Ministries of Economic Affairs and Education and Science, also performed a host of other tasks related to the development of nuclear energy. Within a short period of time, RCN became the priority area of the development of Dutch nuclear energy. Mr Goedkoop would remain the director of RCN, the later ECN, until his retirement in 1984.
The year was 1975 and energy had become a hot topic in social debates. Two years earlier, the Arabs had cut off their oil supply to the Netherlands. Everyone was suddenly aware of the immense vulnerability of the energy system. At the same time, the problem of radioactive waste was brought up for discussion emphatically. The construction of nuclear power plants, including the fast breeder reactor in Kalkar, right across the German border, was met with fierce resistance.
It became clear that an energy system for the future would require more than nuclear power alone. This gave rise to a strong call for energy research into alternative forms of power: solar and wind energy, tidal power, biomass, geothermic heat… and energy saving. RCN was subsequently designated as the institute responsible for running a large part of this research project. The name was changed from Reactor Centrum Nederland to Energieonderzoek Centrum Nederland (Energy research Centre of the Netherlands) or simply ECN. Some of the researchers were retrained and new staff members were recruited. ECN’s first programmes were geared towards wind energy and coal. The first new department to be set up was the Energy Study Centre (the current Policy Studies Unit).
A clear indication of the dramatic changes in store for Petten was the construction of the HAT-25, an experimental wind turbine, prominently positioned near the entrance of the ECN site. A few years later, a test field for wind turbines was established along Westerduinweg. Wind research would remain a priority of the ECN programme to this very day, with the test field (which has since been transferred to Wieringermeer) continuing to play a key role.
The Ministries of Economic Affairs and Education set up national research programmes in various fields, including wind energy, thermal solar power, coal and energy saving. ECN was involved in these programmes, partly as programme coordinator and partly as operator. A number of years later, the department responsible for programme management was incorporated into Novem.
ECN ended up in a turbulent world. The issue of energy was on everyone’s lips. After the second oil crisis of 1979, coal was once again seen as the fuel of the future, though in a far cleaner form than before. A major national research programme for coal was soon established and ECN was assigned a role in this as well.
Its tasks included research on issues such as fluidised bed combustion for the application of coal in the industry. Sadly, this application proved unable to compete with the use of natural gas and all interest in the fluidised bed combustion of coal was eventually lost. ECN then turned its attention to coal gasification, an activity that would later form the basis of the current biomass gasification research at ECN.
In the 1980s, ECN invested a great deal of effort in the development of fuel cells. The development seemed to be happening at a rapid pace in the rest of the world and the Netherlands did not want to be left behind. Again, all hope was pinned on the development of a type of technology on which the Netherlands could build its own energy industry. ECN played a pivotal role in this research, where the material-related knowledge that had been gained during nuclear research proved an important link. Unfortunately, the market prospects turned out to be unsatisfactory and the high industrial ambitions had to be scaled down. In the meantime, ECN had grown into an internationally renowned knowledge centre in the field of fuel cell technology.
The solar energy programme that ECN launched in the late eighties was another core area. By then, all the major international players were collaborating in this field.
Another structural change took place in 1990 with in the establishment of business units. Mr Harry van den Kroonenberg had been appointed as director in 1989 and soon managed to put his stamp on the organisation within the first few months. He concluded that the organisation was not in step with the more commercial character needed to see the contract research through to the end. Business units were subsequently established to encourage a professional approach to the research activities; the units were paid according to their financial results and were therefore required to give greater account of customer wishes and project costs and returns.
Later, in the late 1990s, it emerged that the business unit structure also had its disadvantages when it came to research coherence and efficacy. ECN’s activities were once again firmly aligned with government policy and greater emphasis was placed on the extent to which projects contributed to policy objectives. These objectives were also clearly defined. ECN had to shape the transition to sustainable energy system on the one hand and play a role in the knowledge economy on the other.
This role was later underlined by the Government again during a large-scale assessment of major technological institutes in 1999. ECN should, according to the Government, ‘by no means become a market organisation’. The activities must remain related to government policy and ‘all market-oriented activities must this also show a univocal connection to the long-term orientation of the institution’. But that did not mean turning back the clock, as ECN also had to continue focusing on the market and developing products of relevance to the Dutch economy.
Sustainable energy services as a focus
The Dutch energy policy was given a different slant with the NMP-4 and the Policy Document on Energy Saving, which was published at the same time (1999). The climate problem resulting from the production of greenhouse gases was recognised as a serious long-term problem and because greenhouse gases in general (and CO2 in particular) are emitted through energy consumption, the energy policy was felt to be of direct relevance. A ‘sustainable energy system’ was therefore made the long-term objective of the energy policy (of key importance to ECN), where the emission of CO2 was drastically limited.
The aim was an energy consumption ‘transition’ to arrive at greater efficiency of energy use, accelerated use of renewable energy and cleaner use of fossil fuels. From that moment on, these three objectives, collectively known as the ‘Trias Energetica’, determined the entire ECN programme, which had largely already been shaped along these lines.