Deploying water knowledge for the energy transition

The energy transition is a major societal challenge that concerns us all. Therefore, the water sector as well. This is evidenced in the growing number of projects in which KWR is working at the interface of water and energy. ‘We want to deploy our knowledge to help accelerate the energy transition in a responsible manner,’ says KWR researcher Marette Zwamborn.

The challenge is to contribute to opportunities and possibilities for enhancing the sustainability of the energy provision, explains Marette Zwamborn, senior researcher in geohydrology and thermal energy. ‘At the same time, we need to define the framework conditions for the diligent implementation of sustainable technologies. KWR wants to offer solutions for the energy transition that do not cause any problems for drinking water abstraction.’


The WarmingUP  project, which was launched in 2020, aims at using collective heating systems to accelerate the heating transition in a reliable, sustainable and affordable manner. KWR is working on the project with other research institutes, universities, provinces, municipalities and private actors. Zwamborn: ‘KWR adds value to the consortium thanks to our extensive knowledge of drinking water abstraction and groundwater quality. This is very useful in the development of technologies, such as thermal energy, geothermal energy and heat storage. In WarmingUp we are focussing on the technical development, while also directing attention to the framework conditions and impacts.’

Applicable knowledge

Knowledge about transport and distribution networks also comes in handy in the WarmingUp project. Drinking water utilities hear questions being raised about aquathermal energy: To what extent can drinking water pipes be used as a source for the recovery of energy? How much energy does this produce, and what impact does it have on drinking water quality? KWR also makes use of knowledge about the customer in WarmingUp. ‘One of the key questions in the energy transition, is how one can manage heating demand,’ explains Zwamborn. ‘This is where a behavioural element enters the picture. Thanks to our experience in customer research, we also make a valuable contribution to partners in the heating transition in this field of expertise.’

Collaboration and system solutions

Research at the water-energy interface is being done throughout KWR. Collaboration both within and outside the organisation is essential in this effort. In the European context, we work on an energy-neutral, circular economy in projects such as NextGen, ULTIMATE and HEATSTORE. In Dutch TKI projects, such as ENGINE and Borehole Backfilling, we collaborate with drinking water utilities, market actors, governments and branch associations on specific solutions. The importance of collaboration was underlined over the past year by the creation of the Energy and Circular Systems team, under the leadership of Zwamborn. A team with connector researchers from multiple fields, who work on integrated system solutions. A fine example is the Power-to-X project, which was successfully concluded in 2020. A follow-up is now being worked on with Allied Waters. Zwamborn: ‘Power-to-X  shows how we should work towards system solutions in the energy transition. This instance involved the application of the principle of “local sources, local use”, in which solar energy, hydrogen, heat storage and rainwater harvest are developed as an integrated system.’ Zwamborn does not see attention being paid to such integrated system solutions in the heating transition visions that all municipalities must present in 2021.

Heating transition visions and drinking water

In their heating transition visions the municipalities decide whether to install a heating network in a district, or whether for instance each house should have an own thermal energy system. The choice is relevant for drinking water utilities, and raises new questions. Are the drinking water protection areas still adequate, given the strong growth of thermal energy? How are boreholes sealed in thermal energy systems to ensure that groundwater quality is not threatened? There is moreover a risk, particularly in the case of high-temperature heating networks, that neighbouring drinking water pipes will be heated up. ‘KWR has a great deal of in-house expertise in the installation and optimisation of pipe networks, water quality and microbial impact,’ says Zwamborn. ‘Thanks to our experience, we can effectively assist drinking water utilities as well as heating companies with such questions.’ The subject of the ‘energy transition and drinking water’ falls under the rubric of theme-overarching research that was recently established within the Joint Research Programme of KWR and the water utilities.

Acceleration in energy-related projects

Zwamborn also stresses the importance of another component of the Joint Research Programme, namely: Water in the Circular Economy (WiCE). ‘Both WarmingUp and Power-to-X are supported in part by the WiCE programme. WiCE functions as an accelerator to get energy-related projects off the ground. In this way, the water sector is able to contribute to achieving societal objectives related to the circular economy. I look forward to further shaping these initiatives in 2021.’