The road to energy independence
The sixth edition of Energy Now, Team Energy’s sustainable energy congress, took place at the Evoluon on May 15. The annual event brings students, businesses and policymakers together for a day of networking and discussing the challenges with respect to the energy transition. This year’s theme was ‘The Move Towards Energy Independence’.
“The road to energy independence has been an important theme for years, but the war in Ukraine has put things into overdrive,” says Ali Al-Jaliel, master’s student of Sustainable Energy Technology at the TU/e Department of Mechanical Engineering and one of the event’s organizers on behalf of Team Energy. Our dependence on imported gas became painfully obvious over the past year, making the need for alternatives even more urgent. “You can interpret the theme at various levels,” Al-Jaliel says. “You can focus on the energy independence of Europe or the Netherlands, but also of a street or a household.”
“When it comes to alternative energy sources, a lot of people automatically think of solar panels and wind energy, but there are many other technological possibilities, such as iron fuel,” he continues. This involves using iron as a sustainable, carbon-free fuel. “Energy Now is intended for people in relevant positions and with relevant expertise who wish to contribute to the energy transition. Anyone’s welcome, but the primary target group is students, for whom this is a day of learning about new developments and technologies in the area of sustainable energy and getting acquainted with various businesses and startups. We want to make them aware of what’s going on and show them how they can get actively involved with the energy transition.”
Singing together for the climate
According to the program, Silvia Lenaerts would be opening the congress with a speech, but the new rector is unexpectedly replaced by Bart Wesselink, part-time lecturer at the TU/e Department of Industrial Engineering and Innovation Sciences, researcher and independent sustainability advisor. Wesselink shows us how the energy dependence (and independence) of the Netherlands changed throughout the years. From 2000 to 2020 this dependence grew strongly, but it should be decreasing towards 2030. By 2050 a renewable energy generation should be growing up in the Netherlands.
Wesselink lays out two visions of the future: one in which we have unlimited access to renewable energy sources, which means we won’t have to change our behavior, and one in which limited access to these sources means we will have to change our behavior, for instance by flying or driving less. “On which side are you? What’s your view of the world? I want you to think about this carefully today,” is Wesselink’s invitation to the audience.
Wesselink ends his speech on an activist note, with the song Sing for the climate. After energetically singing the first verse without musical accompaniment, he plays the video on the big screen and encourages the audience to stand and sing along with the children in the video. “We need to build a better future and we need to start right now”, the room echoes. The joint singing serves as an urgent call to action and makes clear that we’ll have to put our money where our mouth is to safeguard a better future.
Later on in the morning, the floor is taken by Richard van de Sanden, scientific director of EIRES, TU/e’s institute for research into sustainable energy systems. Van de Sanden explains what EIRIS is, what the institute stands for and what kind of questions the affiliated scientists work on. He also tells us that in the future we’ll have to switch from a linear energy system, where a lot of energy is used inefficiently and even wasted, to a more connected, integrated system. In the latter system, energy doesn’t flow into one direction, but back and forth between producers and users (as it were), minimizing energy waste. In closing, he presents a number of successful startups, such as Carbyon, a company that uses a unique technology to directly capture CO2 from the air, thereby purifying the atmosphere.
Developing a sustainable energy system
One of the workshops at the congress has small groups working on assignments set by several businesses. Energy company Essent, for instance, challenges participants to design the perfect energy system for a project that consists of twenty single-family homes, a large apartment building containing 130 units and a business park housing stores and offices. There are a few conditions, such as the obligation to include hydrogen technology in the system, and there are three main goals that are to be pursued: sustainability, affordability and security of supply. In so doing, the needs of the customers must also be taken into account, as they’ll obviously want to take hot showers, drive their car and be nice and warm in their homes in wintertime.
The participants are given little cards listing different energy sources and technologies, which are to be placed on a big poster that schematically represents the project. A lively debate quickly ensues, with plenty of questions being asked. What’s the difference between photovoltaic and thermic solar energy? What is ATES (aquifer thermal energy storage, ed.) and how does it work exactly? What’s cheaper? Should we put the solar panels in a central location or at the user’s home? How do we store energy? Where should the buffer tank go? And will the system yield enough energy to last through the winter? Whenever the participants can’t find the answers among themselves, they are assisted by the Essent staff running the workshop.
“Students are often great at thinking about energy at a theoretical level, but may forget about all kinds of practical matters, such as finances, where to physically place a tank, noise pollution caused by a windmill or people’s willingness to drive electric cars,” says Arend van Eerd, TU/e alumnus and workshop leader on behalf of Essent. “These kinds of assignments confront them with everything that comes into putting innovations into practice.”
The big picture
At the end of the workshop, the teams present their projects to the group. The team composed solely of TU/e students emerges victoriously. “They have the most realistic design,” Van Eerd explains. “It was fun to debate with people from different backgrounds,” says a student from the winning team. “During your studies you’re often working on a specific aspect, but an assignment like this forces you to look at the big picture.”