Before The Oil
  • Energy
  • Innovate

Roel Swierenga 'A successful energy transition requires sacrifices'

Roel Swierenga Roel Swierenga

Since last June, Roel Swierenga has been working at NOM as Ecosystem Developer Energy. He is also engaged in making short films and video documentaries on sustainable themes. In this blog he talks about building energy ecosystems, the energy transition and his award-winning documentary Before the oil.

As Energy Ecosystem Developer for the three northern provinces, I keep a close eye on developments in the energy world. What is going on and possible in our working area? What networks around energy and innovation are there? And especially: where and how can we as NOM offer support to strengthen those networks and increase their added value?

Logically, the theme on which I mainly focus is energy transition. Or more precisely: helping to create and realize the best possible innovation climate for building a sustainable energy system. After all, between now and 2050 we need to completely switch from fossil fuels to sustainable renewable alternatives. And yes, this will require a new energy system.

The energy transition is happening incrementally

Of course, the Northern Netherlands leads the way in renewable energy production. We have already invested heavily in the region in knowledge and skills to completely decarbonize energy supplies in the future. But there is still a long way to go. It is, in other words, a mega task. The energy transition can never be done all at once, so it must be done incrementally. For example, you have to deal with issues such as: how much natural gas do we use now? And if we want to replace that with a more sustainable alternative, what would be the best way to do that?

Hydrogen is then one of the possible solutions. We can then convert the existing infrastructure for natural gas for hydrogen. So the basic infrastructure is already in the ground. Only: hydrogen is an energy carrier and not a source. Hydrogen will therefore have to be produced. To produce a lot of hydrogen, we first have to build a number of new wind and solar farms. These are very costly investments. Including the tender and obtaining the necessary permits, it will take several decades to generate enough energy to produce hydrogen sustainably.

Therein lies an immediate challenge for NOM. What can we do to accelerate such processes? My main role as Energy Ecosystem Developer is to encourage parties in that ecosystem, such as governments, companies and knowledge institutions, to work together. To then promote that cooperation and ensure that things get off the ground.

We share the North Sea

The energy world is by no means new to me. Before I joined NOM, I worked full-time at the Hansa Green Tour foundation. Currently, I still work there one day a week. I founded this foundation, an international network organization, in 2010 to promote initiatives in the field of sustainable technology and renewable energy in Northwest Europe. One of the ways we do this is by organizing networking trips, such as innovation missions and events. Sustainability professionals thereby get the opportunity to exchange knowledge and experience, inspire each other and learn from exemplary projects in the Netherlands, northern Germany and the Scandinavian countries.

Indeed, it is very important that, when developing Dutch initiatives, we take into account what people in Scandinavia and northern Germany are doing. And vice versa. Not least because we share the North Sea. So if you are moving towards a system where you want to do a lot with wind at sea, or with (green) hydrogen and its derivatives such as methanol or ammonia, it has to match what the other countries are doing in terms of infrastructure. Energy generated at sea will have to come ashore somewhere. The ports around the North Sea must work well together so that energy, in whatever form, can be brought ashore and easily exchanged between ports.

Innovative energy projects

Last year I organized two innovation missions to the four Scandinavian countries for the municipality and the province of Groningen. There, we showed participants various innovative energy projects. We also held discussions with governments, the business community and knowledge institutions there. How do they view the challenges of energy transition and what themes play a role?

As a result of those missions, I entered into discussions with NOM. Mainly to see how I could contribute to building a well-functioning ecosystem in the Northern Netherlands based on my knowledge, experience and rich network. Ultimately, this resulted in me joining NOM last June as Energy Ecosystem Developer. Since then, I have been trying to ensure that the province, municipalities, entrepreneurs, small and large companies, business clusters and knowledge institutions are as much as possible on the same page when it comes to setting up a new energy system.

Meeting with Odd Kvinnen

On the trips I organized with Hansa Green Tour starting in 2010, I always took a photographer and cameraman with me to document the networking tours for our participants and own use. Until the 10th edition in 2019, that worked extremely well. But after the pandemic broke out in early 2020, the touring was suddenly over. I thought: suppose the pandemic becomes long-term and you can no longer meet physically, how can you continue to share knowledge about sustainability and the energy transition? Actually, the best solution is to make short documentary-like films. After all, you can share them online.

So documenting our travels and events was something we already did. But never with the idea of making short films from them for television or film festivals, for example. During the pandemic, I started getting more into that and practicing it by making a few short documentaries. I continued to do that after that.

In my search for interesting people and appealing projects, I met Odd Kvinnen. For decades he has lived deep in the mountains of southern Norway where he runs a husky farm. He told me that he teaches young people and entrepreneurs to survive in nature, to respect that nature and to think carefully about current and future choices. His story spoke to me so much that I decided to make a short film about it, called Before the Oil, which recently premiered at the Big Apple Film Festival in New York and has already won several international awards. For example, I just returned from Helsinki where the film was nominated three times during Helsinki Educational Film Festival and won the best environment educational film award.

From past to present

Odd grew up in Norway, then one of Europe's poorest countries, before the oil discoveries. The time before more and more hydroelectric plants were built in the country. He took me to where his childhood home stood. The house was completely under water because decades ago they chose to build a dam in the valley.

What I just showed you, Odd told me, is about the past. Let's extend it to the present. Shortly after, he took me to a ski resort in the middle of nowhere, near Stavanger, where luxury vacation homes are being built. There are so many of them by now that a wind farm must be built to provide enough power for the homes. Only: the homeowners don't want it. Because yes, such a wind farm spoils their view. At its core, Odd thus outlines the story of the energy transition: if you keep fueling the energy demand, it will always be at the expense of something. Often at the expense of nature.

Affordability as a bottleneck

So to what extent are we willing to change? Because if we want to accelerate the energy transition, there are consequences. Success requires sacrifices. Do we want green hydrogen? We can. But under the current circumstances, that could mean significantly higher energy costs. Do we want to pay that? I doubt it. That brings you, in addition to laws and regulations, to a major bottleneck of the energy transition: affordability. You can think up all kinds of things at a high level, but in the end it is often the citizen who has to pay.

If we want to help companies become more sustainable, much the same applies. If it becomes unaffordable for them, the energy transition will not be a success. So in a well-functioning ecosystem, we need to come up with smart solutions together. In my role as Energy Ecosystem Developer, I hope to be able to contribute to that.