Dutch pin hopes on ‘hydrogen valley’ to revive declining gas region

King Willem-Alexander (R) during a walk through the village center of Overschild in the northern province Groningen, The Netherlands, 27 May 2020. The king visited the village to discuss the consequences of natural gas extraction. [EPA-EFE/KOEN VAN WEEL]

Near-silent buses shift around in a residential neighbourhood in the province of Groningen, home to one of the greenest industrial areas in the world. We’re in 2026 and the Netherlands gives the world a preview of what a “hydrogen economy” could look like.

Inside the farms and dwellings of Northern Netherlands, the cracks in the walls are the only reminders of the region’s industrial past when natural gas provided jobs and wealth to the entire country, and drilling-induced tremors frequently shook the grounds on which the houses are seated.

By 2026, the Northern Netherlands region aims to become a “Hydrogen Valley”, a geographical area hosting an entire hydrogen value chain – from production to distribution, storage and local end-use.

The region’s plan is to generate both demand and supply for hydrogen, and break the deadlock which is currently stifling growth in the nascent hydrogen economy.

The Northern Netherlands recently won a European grant of €20 million to further develop its hydrogen valley in the coming six years. The grant was awarded by the Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Joint Undertaking, a public-private partnership between the European Commission, industry association Hydrogen Europe and the sector’s research association Hydrogen Europe Research.

The grant was assigned to the so-called HEAVENN project, which stands for “Hydrogen Energy Applications in Valley Environments for Northern Netherlands” and brings together 29 public and private parties from 7 European countries.

The project, which celebrates its official kick-off on Thursday (2 July), includes tens of smaller plans which, collectively, are expected to bring the “Dutch Hydrogen Valley” to the next level.

The EU subsidy – one of the largest ever awarded to a single project under the FCH-JU partnership – will be accompanied by €70 million of public and private co-funding at national level. It is exclusively meant for the development of green hydrogen generated from renewable electricity.

A central aim for FCH-JU is to create “replicable business models” so that other regions can learn from the Dutch experience, said Enrique Giron, project manager at the FCH-JU.

From hydrogen islands to hydrogen valleys

Small communities are becoming energy self-sufficient with clean-burning hydrogen gas generated from wind power. The question now for Europe is whether it can be replicated on a larger scale.

First steps towards a hydrogen economy

By the end of 2025, the HEAVENN project is expected to produce a “fully-fledged” integrated green hydrogen value chain in the region, with applications in industry, mobility and the built environment.

HEAVENN will not fund the construction of new electrolysers as such, but it will create a favourable environment for green hydrogen production and use by providing the  logistics connecting supply, demand and storage, Patrick Cnubben, the architect of HEAVENN, told EURACTIV in a phone interview.

Green hydrogen production will rely on a 20 MW electrolyser in Delfzijl, developed under another FCH-JU funded project called “Djewels”, and on a planned 10 MW electrolyser in Emmen.

By the time the project is completed, the streets will see at least 10 fuel-cell driven buses, 105 cars, 10 vans, 8 heavy-duty trucks, 4 refuser trucks and 1 inland ship, Cnubben told EURACTIV.

The industrial areas of Emmen and Delfzijl will use the hydrogen to produce green methanol and high temperature industrial heat, in addition to providing back-up power for a data-center and on-shore auxiliary power for vessels docking in Delfzijl.

The aviation sector will also be able to use hydrogen-derived “drop-in e-fuels” that can be used in existing aircraft without modifying the engine, Cnubben said.

Existing natural gas pipelines will be repurposed to transport hydrogen between the industrial areas and underground storage is foreseen at the Hystock storage facility in Veendam.

In Hoogeveen, 100 new residential buildings are expected to be heated with hydrogen boilers and fuel-cell driven heating systems. Initially, the houses will be supplied with hydrogen by trucks, but later a dedicated pipeline might become economically feasible, Cnubben told EURACTIV.

Later on, the plan is to connect between 250 and 1,200 homes in other neighbourhoods so that they can be heated on a blend of natural gas and hydrogen. That will be an “interesting endeavour, Cnubben said, because existing boilers will have to be made hydrogen ready.

Not everything is expected to go smoothly, of course. Initially at least, citizens will worry about price, says Kees Boer, a project manager in the municipality of Hoogeveen. “The starting point for the conversion to hydrogen is that total living bills will remain the same,” Boer says on the municipality’s website.

“This is just the start,” Cnubben admits, explaining that the HEAVENN plan is not set in stone and covers just part of all hydrogen related developments in the Northern Netherlands region.

“HEAVENN is a nucleus around which other projects can gather and develop. It’s a jump starter,” he explains.

A region needs a business

The particular interest for hydrogen in the Northern part of the Netherlands can be explained by a combination of the region’s characteristics and history, local experts explained during an online debate on the topic.

“All elements are available here,” said Cas König, the CEO of Groningen seaports. “We have space in the harbours to produce hydrogen, we have the most dense gas network in the world, we have the possibility to store hydrogen underground at 30 km from the industries and we have users in the harbours. What else could you wish for?”

The region built its wealth and worldwide reputation on natural gas extraction, and continues to supply the Netherlands and the rest of the world with fossil gas.

But the resource is depleting fast. In 2017, the Netherlands became a net importer of gas for the first time, reflecting the steady decline in supplies coming from North Sea fields.

A combination of drilling-induced earthquakes and climate ambitions then convinced the Dutch government to turn off the gas tap. That year, the Dutch government announced it would cut production at the Groningen gas field to 12 billion cubic meters (bcm) per year by 2022, and to zero by 2030.

Europe grapples with Dutch gas production ‘collapse’

For the first time, the Netherlands became a net importer of gas last year, reflecting the inexorable decline in production from Europe’s North Sea fields – an issue EU policymakers are only starting to come to terms with.

‘Green joules and jobs’

Although some locals might be relieved by the end of the drilling era, they are concerned by the loss of jobs in the gas industry. But the region’s hydrogen plans could provide a solution there too.

“A region needs a business,” Cnubben told EURACTIV, explaining how green hydrogen can provide fresh perspectives by providing “green joules and green high-tech and high-skilled jobs”.

The extensive gas pipeline network and access to the North Sea are two obvious assets for the region, which can count on years of experience with handling natural gas, Cnubben says.

However, the Netherlands are unlikely to become a big exporter again, cautioned Jan-jaap Aué, an energy professor at Hanze University of Applied Sciences in Groningen. This is because the country’s offshore wind capacity is more limited than its once available gas reserves.

“I don’t think that we will fall back to exporting cubic meters – we will very much need those ourselves,” Aué said. However, the region’s conversion to hydrogen could give its people “a new perspective,” he added.

Aué’s projections resonate with the country’s “hydrogen vision,” which sees the molecule as an economic opportunity – not only to decarbonise heavy industries, but also to export the country’s knowledge.

The vision document, presented earlier this year, outlined the country’s ambitions on hydrogen and explicitly mentioned the HEAVENN project as a step in that direction.

The European Commission is expected to unveil its own hydrogen strategy on 8 July, together with a related blueprint aimed at integrating energy supply and demand sectors together.

Dutch outline clean hydrogen 'vision', aim at global market

The Netherlands want to use their “unique starting position” in the gas value chain to become world leaders in the production and use of clean hydrogen, saying the fuel “can become a globally traded commodity”.

(Edited by Frédéric Simon)

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