‘Our future lies at sea!’
‘The solutions to all major problems we will be facing in the coming decades have one thing in common: they require space, and lots of it. This holds for deployment of renewable sources and CO2 storage in catering for our energy needs. It also holds for the need to feed a growing world population. Food production is mostly a local problem nowadays, but if the entire world population would grow an appetite for a piece of meat, this would require a much larger agricultural production. After all, protection of the global biodiversity can only be realised by treating large parts of the earth as nature reserves.
Some people say that if ten billion people want to live on this earth, we will need a second earth. That second earth can be found in the water of the seas and oceans. In fact, this course was first set in the extraction of oil and gas. Ever since the 1970s, drilling has been taking place in increasingly deeper seas. The fossil answer to the climate problem (carbon capture and storage) is also looking into offshore solutions. The oldest CO2 storage project can be found in the North Sea (the Sleipner-West gas field, off the coast of Norway). After the failure of ‘Barendrecht’, Rotterdam is now also betting on storage under the seabed.
Generation of onshore wind energy is encountering so much resistance that these activities are increasingly moving to shallow coastal waters. Statoil has successfully demonstrated a floating wind turbine, which makes it possible to place wind turbines in deeper seas, too.
Biomass as source of energy and as source of industrial resources is facing rapidly increasing pressure. The production of biomass on land fails to meet the demand of the bio-based economy. Here, too, the solution is sought in ‘aquatic biomass’. This new source has a huge potential.
Hunting for wild fish seems to be somewhat prehistoric and has fortunately has its day. It is being replaced by aqua culture: an increasing share of fish is produced by fish farming. Obviously, this activity mostly takes place at sea, where thousands of fish are bred in large, round cages.
Pros and cons
Operating at sea has its advantages. There is free and unlimited space, particularly if you look beyond the busy coastal waters. Transportation costs are lower, in fact much lower than road transport, particularly at a large scale. Transporting a tonne of biomass all the way from Canada to the Maasvlakte area across the sea is less costly than transporting that same tonne of biomass from the Veluwe across land! And there are fewer rules at sea, particularly outside the territorial waters.
However, the challenges are also significant. At sea, maintenance and management are more complicated and therefore the costs are much higher than on land. Ships are expensive and so is manpower. At sea you will encounter rough weather conditions. People and materials often need to be transported across large distances. And the safety requirements for staff are high and expensive to meet.
Not only is ECN located near the sea; it increasingly needs to deal with the sea. First of all in the field of offshore wind energy, obviously. And now the cultivation of biomass at sea is a new theme; interest in seaweed is growing rapidly. Sometimes we collaborate with other Dutch institutes such as NIOZ and MARIN, sometimes in a European framework with the Norwegians, the Scottish and the Irish. ECN is ready for a future at sea!’
Jip Lenstra, senior business developer at ECN
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