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Past, present and future of gas in the Netherlands

2013-09-23

Mannes Wolters, a former technology manager at Kiwa Technology, talks about his professional experience and give his insights

Mannes Wolters (Photo: EDGaR/Paul Zijlstra) Mannes Wolters (Photo: EDGaR/Paul Zijlstra)

The gas industry in the Netherlands boomed after the discovery of natural gas near Groningen in 1959. Fifty years later, it faces the challenge of adjusting to new gas technologies and the advent of renewable energy. Mannes Wolters, who cumulates 35 years in the gas industry, talks in an interview about his professionnal experience and give his insights. He stresses the importance of having a reliable and safe gas system, now as well as in the future. He argues that gas can enable renewable energy, and that this requires coordination with the electricity sector.

You cumulated a long experience in the gas industry. What are the changes that you have seen over time?

When I started to work at the end of the 1970s, there were many small gas companies, with sometimes only having ten people or something like that. Now, of course, these companies have become larger than in the past. So, that is already a change. Another change is that the gas business has internationalized. Before, people were focusing on the gas flows from the North of the Netherlands. Now, all gas systems have become interconnected and gas is coming from many sources. Finally—that is probably the biggest change—the supply, transport and distribution of gas have been unbundled.

What was your focus during your career?

My focus has been mainly on infrastructure systems. What is important to me is that the Netherlands has a gas system that is reliable and safe. That is what people want. They always like to have access to energy in their homes and in the industry. It's very much important that you build and maintain a gas system that is reliable and safe to use. I worked a lot on materials. Are they reliable? Can you transport gas safely through them? These were the big questions.

What was your contribution to standardization?

We can do a lot of research and develop all kinds of processes and products for the gas industry. Before you put these into use, you will need standards. If you do not have standards, it will not be used by the industry. That explains why I worked in several standardization committees in the Netherlands, in Europe and at world level. I was for many years the chairman of committees of the International Organization for Standardization. One of these committees was responsible for setting up requirements for plastic pipe systems for gas transport. In these committees, you have the opportunity to transfer the knowledge generated by research to a specification that can be used in practice.

You have worked for the industry and the university. What do you think of both worlds?

I worked for the industry, but when the University of Twente hired me, in 1999, as part-time professor in gas technology, I started to have a better access to scientific knowledge. I was able to stimulate cooperation with the industry. I still do a lot of it. That is really important. Knowledge produced at the university is, most of the time, not transferred to the industry. When you are able to connect the industry and the university and, in particular, different parts of the university, it can be a big success. The Energy Delta Gas Research (EDGaR) has made a good step into that direction. When we started the program, there was not much cooperation between the industry and the university on gas research. Researchers from the university have now contacts with people working in the industry and the other way around.

You are a member of EDGaR’s Program Steering Committee. What do you think of EDGaR’s contribution?

We have a very good infrastructure system in the Netherlands. People in the gas transport and distribution companies start to recognize that this system is about to change. Dutch gas companies look forward. How can we prepare ourselves for the future? Then EDGaR comes in place. We have to look to new gas quality. We have to look to systems in which electricity and gas are more closely interconnected. We have to look too from which market the gas is coming from. I think that EDGaR is very much important for gas distribution companies. Kiwa, the company where I was working for, is supporting them in preparing for the future.

What changes do you expect in the future?

There is definitely more than one issue, I think. We always like to have a reliable and safe infrastructure. So, we should know what is going on with the gas system. We will take measures in this system, by means of sensors and smart grids. Besides, we will have to look at new gases. Then power-to-gas technology will come into play. It's one of the issues, of course. When we produce sustainable energy, thanks to windmills and solar voltage panels, we can transform that into methane and hydrogen and, later, to bring these gases back into the system. We can also use biomass to make biogas. In the future, the interrelation between gas and the electricity system will become much more profound. Sustainable energy will be on the list. So, natural gas will become the enabler of sustainable energy systems.

What are your ideas on the potential of gas in greening electricity?

If you look how the domestic sector uses energy, it's mainly for heating. In the Netherlands, it represents four times more energy than what is being supplied by the electricity sector. If you are talking about the greening of energy, you have to ask, “How can we do the greening of the heating demand?” Of course, you have to start with energy conservation and energy reduction. But, after that, you have to ask, “How can we make gas greener for heating?” I think this is important. Specialists often forget to look at the capacity needed, the total maximum energy required in a certain time interval. You need to take into consideration the daily use of energy for heating, indeed. This is especially true during the cold days, when you like to have warm feet. These days, you need a high capacity. There gas comes in place. In my opinion, gas will still be used for these heating peak demands for a long time.

Interview by Jean-François Auger