Green energy for all is more than a pipe dream

Authors of ‘Green energy for all, how hydrogen and electricity carry our future’ on their vision for a sustainable future

A call to look at energy systems, not in isolation, but as part of a larger whole: supplying sustainable energy, materials, water and food. That is the best way to read Green Energy for all, writes author and ‘hydrogen professor’ Ad van Wijk in his foreword. He presented the book upon the occasion of his retirement at Delft University of Technology on 27 October. “The technologies are in place; now it’s a question of upscaling and accelerating,” argues Van Wijk.

Over the past twelve years, Van Wijk has worked as the Professor of Future Energy Systems at Delft University of Technology. And that has borne fruit. “Major research programmes are now being launched for hydrogen,” he says. “That’s very satisfying. It’s up to the future now. Which is why I am presenting the book to the students on the occasion of my departure.”

Ad van Wijk and his wife in the front row during the farewell symposium in the auditorium at Delft University of Technology. To their right, Frank Wouters (the senior vice president of Reliance).

Systems thinker

Van Wijk is also a visiting Professor of Energy and Water and an Honorary Fellow at KWR. He is a true systems thinker. So a key message of the book is that, with the energy transition, we need to look more at area-based development rather than technological development. In other words, for example, we should avoid a ‘one size fits all’ approach in which we all have to install heat pumps and drive electric cars. “Obviously, you must design houses in new housing developments on all-electric lines,” says Van Wijk. “But how do you go about the energy transition in the countryside, with the farms in place and, for example, a brick factory? You have to tailor the approach accordingly.”


Furthermore, Van Wijk believes we need to start thinking differently about energy efficiency: how energy is generated and used. Legislation in the European Union in this area is very strict and the researcher believes an overhaul is needed. “In Europe, we will never produce enough sustainable energy locally to meet demand. It goes without saying that we have to install solar panels on our roofs and build wind turbines in the North Sea. But we will also need to import energy. We argue, for example, that we need to generate solar power in the desert, where there is enough space and abundant sunshine. A solar panel in the Sahara produces two to three times more energy than a solar panel here. When you convert that energy into hydrogen, transport it here, and then convert it into electricity and heat, you produce about as much electricity as you would with the same solar panel on your own roof. Moreover, that electricity from the Sahara is available whenever you want it, even in winter and at night. And you also have free heat.”

Seawater pipeline

In addition, this approach cuts several ways, the author explains. “We obviously don’t want a neo-colonial approach, with large solar and hydrogen farms being built solely for export purposes. The focus has to be on cooperation with the region. One way of achieving this is by piping seawater to the desert. You demineralise the seawater and then convert it into hydrogen using solar energy. The classic idea now is that you export the hydrogen to places where power and heat are needed. But by making a seawater pipeline a little larger, you can produce not only demineralised water for hydrogen production but also drinking water and water for irrigation. That is very welcome in the desert, where it can allow lively cities to flourish and also enable food production. The remaining salt water can be used as source of commodities such as lithium for batteries and silicon for solar cells. In that way, you produce not only energy but also drinking water, food and  materials.” Is this vision just a pipe dream? Van Wijk doesn’t think so. “You need less than 10% of the Sahara to generate all the energy needed by the world in this way. The cost price is between 1 and 3 cents per kWh. That’s a lot cheaper than fossil energy at the moment.”

Enter hydrogen

Jos Boere played a bridge-building role in the production of Green energy for all. He is the director of Allied Waters, one of KWR’s sister organisations, and a co-founder of Hysolar, a company that focuses on practical applications of green hydrogen (hydrogen produced using, among other things, solar energy). Boere: “Hydrogen Europe, the trade association of European hydrogen companies, asked us to write a sequel to our previous book Solar power to the people. This book was published in 2017; people weren’t thinking about hydrogen at all back then. A year later, the Dutch government decided to phase out natural gas production in Groningen. And so the big question was: what now? That was when hydrogen came onto the scene.”

The right perspective

Both Van Wijk and Boere hope their book will help put hydrogen into perspective. “There is a lot of debate about the role of hydrogen in the energy transition,” says Boere. “For example, energy storage in batteries is more effective than in hydrogen. Unfortunately, some people have raised this fact into the argument against hydrogen as the way forward. One-sided views like this skew the discussion: we can never make enough batteries to store all the power we need. You have to take a broader perspective: it’s not a zero-sum game and we need both technologies. In Green energy for all, we offer a realistic description of energy systems, with the role that hydrogen, batteries and electricity can play in them.” Van Wijk says that he will be writing policy reports in the future that will focus on particular sections in the book. “The aim is to help policymakers move ahead in the right direction.”

Easy to read

The book is beautifully designed, richly illustrated and easy to read. The authors hope that not only scholars and policymakers, but also interested laypeople, will enjoy it. Els van der Roest, a former researcher at KWR, unearthed the knowledge needed to compile illustrations that have never been seen before. They include a map of the world showing the annual surplus or deficit of solar energy per square kilometre compared with energy use in the year 2100. They clearly show that most shortages will be found in densely populated areas and that the surpluses will be in areas where few people live. And that there is virtually no energy production in agricultural, natural, mountainous and wooded areas. The map can also be found online. “It was a genuine challenge to find the facts needed for this analysis,” says the young scientist, who will receive her doctorate on integrated renewable energy and water systems for residential areas on 15 November. “KWR, for example, contributed the knowledge needed to outline a future vision for wastewater treatment plants. These are potential sources of green energy, carbon, commodities and clean water. Ideas like this have already been elaborated in projects such as Power to Protein, in which high-quality protein is extracted from waste water.”

Thinking big

Van Wijk will be staying on at Delft University of Technology as an emeritus professor. He will also continue his work as a visiting professor of Energy and Water at KWR. “Hydrogen is the ultimate bridge between energy and water because it is a circular energy carrier,” he says. “I am looking forward to working on it for a long time to come.” Boere hopes the book will provide young scholars like Van der Roest with inspiring ideas for further exploration. The aim is also to put companies and organisations working on hydrogen on the map. As a researcher who knows what is happening in the field, Boere talks about the need to establish a sound business case for hydrogen. “Subsidies are urgently needed now but that won’t be the case in the future. Hydrogen will stand on its own feet financially.” Finally, the book gives the new generation a say because, after all, it’s their future that is at stake. “What Green energy for all has taught me is how important it is to look at energy system issues holistically,” says Van der Roest. “And that means we need the courage to think big. This book invites people to do just that.”

The authors of Green energy for all: from left to right, Allied Waters director Jos Boere, former KWR researcher Els van der Roest and Professor Ad van Wijk.

Ad van Wijk presented the book to ‘the future’, the four student ‘dream teams’. A photo was then taken with the speakers at the symposium and the authors of the book: in addition to Ad van Wijk, Els van der Roest and Jos Boere.

Sales information

The book Green energy for all, how hydrogen and electricity carry our future is an initiative from KWR, Hysolar, Hydrogen Europe and Dii Desert Energy. The publisher is Allied Waters B.V. It is also available in Dutch: Groene energie voor iedereen, hoe waterstof en elektriciteit onze toekomst dragen. You can order it here.