Gasunie case puts WCM Summer School participants to the test

This year, Gasunie provided the case for the eleventh edition of the WCM Summer School. A case consisting of several layers and questions, explains Scholte Strikwerda. “It is a challenging mega-case, in which the overriding question is how we can properly manage the imbalance in energy demand in time and place within the Netherlands as a whole.”

As part of the energy transition, Gasunie’s entire transport network must be converted and/or renewed. This is an investment running into billions, which is subject to time pressure, involves many uncertainties and has to deal with changing frameworks. “The situation in Ukraine is of course a shining example. Developments are exceptionally fast these days, also in technology. It is all less predictable than before. You want to look far ahead, but within that you have to be as flexible as possible”, Strikwerda explains.

Large-scale transport and storage
Gasunie is a network company for energy and manages and maintains the infrastructure in the Netherlands and northern Germany for the large-scale transport and storage of mainly natural gas. With the energy transition, this will increasingly shift to green gas and hydrogen. WCM Summer School is intended for young professionals with up to ten years of work experience and for higher education and research students in the final stages of their studies. Professors and lecturers from seven different universities will give lectures and workshops and provide the participants with the latest theoretical insights. The participants will also work in teams to find a solution for the practical case they have put forward. Several participants from Gasunie are also taking part in the study week.

Technical integrity
Strikwerda is Safety & Inspection Manager and is involved from the design phase through to the use and maintenance of installations. “My department checks whether a design meets the safety requirements, the installation is built properly and whether an installation or pipeline continues to comply during the usage phase. During construction and before anything goes into operation, we carry out inspections to see whether the installation meets the minimum requirements. In short, we monitor the technical integrity of (risky) technical equipment and are involved in the transition to a new and/or modified pipeline network from these angles.”

Known unkowns
“One of the questions is how we can use our existing knowledge in a proper and structured way. An example: we have developed a method to weld a pipeline while it contains natural gas. Can this be done with hydrogen? Under which conditions should it be done? What additional measures are needed? The underlying question is always: how are we going to do the maintenance, or even better: can we prevent maintenance? This leaves us with several blind spots, the so-called ‘known unknowns’ and ‘unknown unknowns’. What ways are there to get a picture of these blind spots? How can we solve the known uncertainties in a sensible way? Can we ‘minimise’ the uncertainties we have not yet identified? We have been looking into our ‘tunnel of gas’ for years and we hope that the Summer School will contribute to fresh perspectives, different angles and new solutions.”

Salt cavern practical case
In order to give concrete form to the various questions facing Gasunie, a practical case was presented concerning the new hydrogen storage facility in Zuidwending, near Veendam. Manager Operations Technology Adriaan den Herder: “For a hydrogen network, as with natural gas, you need a storage function to balance supply and demand. To get the gas in and out of the caverns, you need an installation for compression, treatment and purification. It is no different for hydrogen. We want to build a new plant next to the existing natural gas plant in Zuidwending to enable the storage of hydrogen. The new plant will resemble the existing one in the main, but if you zoom in you will see that there are differences, for example in the type of compressors.” Strikwerda: “We already know a lot about how to handle hydrogen, but real practical tests haven’t been done much.

In Zuidwending we want to learn from practice with a very small salt cavern for hydrogen storage. If you want to do it safely, you have to do it on a small scale. All the pipes, materials and installations you need are the same as for a larger cavern. Whether ‘the hole’ is very big or very small does not change the lessons learned that much. Putting it in and taking it out, the pipe to it and all the materials above it, that’s what it’s all about. How do the valves work, how do the materials behave? How you monitor and measure the pipelines and how you make sure you stay in control, that’s what we do with a very small cavern underneath to minimise the risks. There are several studies into the storage of hydrogen. We have made a conscious choice to develop this new field. This is necessary for the large-scale deployment of hydrogen and groundbreaking, worldwide.”

There are several studies on hydrogen storage. We deliberately choose this new area to be developed. This is necessary for the large-scale deployment of hydrogen and groundbreaking, worldwide.”

Setting up maintenance
Den Herder: “The key question is actually ‘how do we organise maintenance smartly? What should we do in the project, what should we arrange with our suppliers? Which techniques from the natural gas plant do we take to the new one? Also important: how do you get a picture of the behaviour of all that equipment? Because in practice, it may well behave differently from what you initially expected. Incidentally, our budget is not infinite, so it has to be economically feasible. If the story is not affordable, we will not have any customers and therefore no hydrogen economy. We are still at the stage of basic engineering. If the Summer School produces good proposals for design for maintenance, we will certainly take them into consideration.”

Resources and logistics
It’s not just about the technical challenges, but also about the process and the changing conditions mentioned, Strikwerda explains. “How do you deal with that? You can’t do everything at once, so how do you use your resources even better? And logistically speaking, it is also exciting. One thing is phased out, while another is not yet in place. The low-calorific transport network for households will become available. Perhaps it is suitable for hydrogen, but the timing is not right. First you must have the transport possibilities – the network. Only then can you do the trade – and the associated transport. So we run into all sorts of challenges.”

Building trust
Traditionally, Gasunie prescribes the specifications that a contractor must adhere to. Strikwerda: “We are now moving more and more towards devising solutions together and working in construction teams. That’s necessary, because technological developments are happening so fast. But we still find agile design a bit scary. How do you use each other’s strengths? How do you deal with the dependence of your partners? You have to deal with different levels of maturity. We are high on safety, but lower on efficiency. We will have to rely more on chain partners and we are not used to that yet.”

Fewer unknowns
Strikwerda: “I know several positive stories about the Summer School so I am looking forward to our participation and the results we will receive. Our participation is also a way to showcase ourselves as a company and show what cool things we do. The Summer School is successful for us if we manage to reduce the number of unknown unkowns and if participants see and present opportunities that we ourselves no longer see because of that tunnel. We have a robust network, but in the chemical industry, for example, they are more advanced in the smart monitoring of valves. We can learn from them. We mainly look at the proven technology we are familiar with. I hope that we will receive input such as ‘if you are building a new plant, why don’t you do this or that straight away’? Or: ‘have you thought about this or that? Den Herder: “So it’s about three things: the organisation, the technology and familiarisation; how do you become familiar with it from operations and maintenance. Safety always comes first and we also have to achieve the reliability that we agree with the customer. In addition, it may not be more expensive than necessary to achieve that.”

Strikwerda: “We have to get out of our comfort zone a bit. We want to accelerate without losing our base. We will continue to do pipeline transport, only with other types of media. We are building up that knowledge. We already know a lot, but certainly not everything. The Summer School will hopefully help us to become a bit smarter.”

This year’s WCM Summer School will take place from 25 to 29 July at the General-Majoor Kootkazerne in Stroe.