Author Johan Op de Beeck interviewed Daan Schalk, CEO North Sea Port, and Filip Verheyen, Division Director Industry, about the societal challenges for the industry sector. Listen to the interview on Sweco’s podcast channel.
Despite some preconceptions or claims, industry is the driving force behind the necessary innovation in climate ambitions.The Flemish industry does not only provide 12% of the employment and 60% of the total export in Flanders, this sector is also responsible for 80% of R&D expenditure. The fact that Flanders is a leader in innovation is something our discussion partners in the field understand perfectly well.
Daan Schalk, CEO North Sea Port: "A port is a robust environment, certainly in the Flemish and Dutch context. There are few places in the world where industry, logistics and innovation are so closely intertwined. Here too, a port is so much more than a transhipment platform. The industry has a vision of the future and is well supported in Flanders by initiatives such as Moonshot and Capture, research by top universities, and expertise from engineers in engineering firms such as Sweco. It is a combination of knowledge institutions, authorities and private companies. This allows us to operate effectively and make the connection towards innovation."
Filip Verheyen, Division Director Industry at Sweco Belgium, joins in with this 'Triple Helix': "You can indeed consider Sweco as more of an applied knowledge institution. We have long been assisting key industrial customers and effectively tested new technologies together. This will make a difference in the transition to a sustainable society. I can confirm that Flanders is leading the way, especially in the chemical sector."
CO2 as a raw material
How should we think about this in concrete terms? In the pilot projects that Filip Verheyen cites, circularity stands out in particular, such as used plastic that becomes a raw material for new materials, for example. But, there is now a new dimension: CO2 can also be a raw material! It requires a change in mindset to see CO2 not as a problem, but as a solution. Nevertheless, CO2 capture, storage and reuse are important factors in the zero-emission objective by 2050. Purified CO2 is already being used in the food industry, confirms Daan Schalk.
Alternative energy sources
Alternative energy sources will play an important role in the transition to an environmentally friendly industry. Hydrogen, in particular, has great potential, as do methanol and ammonia. Filip Verheyen: "The forecast for 2050 is that we will need three times more hydrogen and electricity than are produced today. The electricity generated must naturally be 'green'. This means further development of offshore and onshore wind farms. All this energy must eventually reach industrial customers, which requires adaptations to the transport and storage infrastructure for these new energy media. Not only locally, but connections with other countries are crucial in this."
In that respect our location is very favourable, says Daan Schalk. "The industrial fabric of Flanders, Rotterdam and the Ruhr is located within a 300 km radius. By connecting them through pipelines and high voltage, we can even reinforce our position and become much less dependent on supplies from faraway countries. The confidence of North Sea Port is so great that three sites have already been secured for future hydrogen plants."
The technology is already available. The next challenge is scale. We want to have assurance of electricity and energy supply, but not at any price. Assuming an eventual shutdown of nuclear power stations, new conventional gases will not be able to fill that gap. Interconnection with other countries with energy surpluses remains inevitable. Daan Schalk: "If we are honest, Belgium can never be 100% self-sufficient in supplying electricity and hydrogen to the industrial and transport sectors. We must ensure a certain 'base load', however, to keep the added values of energy domestically."
Who will pay for this?
New hydrogen plants or electrolysis plants are expensive, as is the conversion of distribution networks. Filip Verheyen: "Public enterprises such as Elia and Fluxis must be able to reorient themselves, as they have an important role to play here. In time, the technology will evolve in such a way that green hydrogen will be commercially an interesting option. The expectation is therefore that private partners will invest, albeit supported by innovation and investment funds, and government subsidies." Daan Schalk is already arguing in favour of a subsidy based on the Dutch model, namely taking into account the ROI and the proposed CO2 reduction.