By 2050, global CO2 emissions will be close to zero: that’s the ambition set out in the climate agreement adopted in Paris. Rotterdam has already been working on the transition towards sustainable and clean for some time now. The latest issue of Havenkrant (in Dutch) lists five examples that show the port of the future in action today. Nevertheless, we still face a fair number of challenges on the path towards a 100% sustainable port cluster by 2050. Nico van Dooren (Director of Energy and Process Industry) and Eric van der Schans (Director of Environmental Management) talk with us about the five challenges en route to a ‘circular port economy’.
Challenge 1. Traditionally, Rotterdam has been a major oil port. In the wake of the recent climate agreement, the international community has stepped up the pace at which it is moving away from fossil fuels. What impact will this have on the port?
Eric: ‘In essence, the climate agreement won’t change anything for developments that are already underway – although they will probably pick up speed. One thing’s clear, however: we are not going through an era of change, but a change of eras. The linear economy is being supplanted by a circular economy. This will have several consequences for the port. Rotterdam is home to a large number of petrochemical plants, which presently run on oil products. Fossil feedstocks of this kind are becoming less important, while the chemical sector is increasingly turning to vegetable products. That’s one aspect. Secondly, we need to close the production and consumption loop so that we can stop wasting raw materials. I am talking about recycling, re-use, etc. And in cases where we are still required to use fossil fuels – and this is still inevitable for the time being – we need to ensure that the resulting CO2 emissions are captured and re-used or sequestered.’
Nico: ‘As Port Authority, we are emphatically following an and-and strategy. In other words, we are installing wind turbines in the port area – making us the largest on-shore wind farm in the Netherlands – as well as taking all sorts of other measures that are intended to promote sustainability. And at the same time, we work to make existing industry and power stations in the port area as efficient and clean as possible. You have to do both, otherwise you won’t make it. Because the challenge we are presently faced with is truly formidable.’
Challenge 2. How do we get rid of the CO2 produced by the port’s industry?
Nico: ‘To start, you can capture CO2 and transport it to the greenhouses in the Westland region via pipelines. The market gardeners there are dying for CO2, since it helps their crops grow faster. And this CO2 is once again stored in biomass. We have already started doing this on a small scale, but there are serious plans to set it up on a far larger scale. We will be combining this with the distribution of industrial residual heat to the greenhouses, as well as private households – perhaps all the way to The Hague and Leiden. This is commonly referred to as the ‘Heat Roundabout’. Right now we let some 6 billion euros worth of residual heat go to waste. So imagine just how much we can still profit from this particular project.’
Eric: ‘And we need to store any remaining CO2 that can’t be used in the greenhouses underground. To research this method, we have developed plans for a pilot project near the Uniper coal-fired power station at Maasvlakte. We will be hearing this year whether there is sufficient budget for this. As the Port Authority, we strongly support this initiative, since we will definitely need this technology as long as we are still in the transition from the fossil fuel era to complete sustainability. A bit further down the road, we can expect to see technologies that allow you to re-use CO2 – using hydrogen to convert it into natural gas, for example – which you can feed into the gas network.’
Nico: ‘That is why, as Port Authority, we are in favour of a new trading system for carbon emissions – like the one the Netherlands proposed to the European Union. In the present system, emitting CO2 is simply too cheap, so that it isn’t interesting for parties to invest in these kinds of technologies. Make CO2 emissions a lot more expensive and the technology to do something useful with them will develop more or less automatically.’
Challenge 3. Ships are also notorious as a source of CO2 emissions. How can we clean them up?
Eric: ‘As Port Authority, we encourage greener shipping by giving clean vessels a discount on their port tariffs. This makes it interesting for shipping companies to invest in ships that run on cleaner fuel types – LNG, for example: Liquid Natural Gas. The Port Authority has made major investments in the infrastructure and facilities that vessels of this kind need to bunker LNG in the port. You could really call Rotterdam a pioneer in this area. And we’re not the only ones saying this. Bernice Noteboom recently released a documentary called Sea Blind. Among other things, this film deals with polar caps that are melting as a result of a layer of soot particles from ships’ engines. That’s one issue you avoid when you adopt LNG as a transport fuel, or install a filter on your engine. The documentary uses Rotterdam as a positive example of a progressive port that is taking major steps to deal with this problem. And as Port Authority, we are also strong advocates of stricter agreements when it comes to emission control areas: the zones where ships are required to switch to cleaner fuels. We would like to see this area extended from the North Sea and the Baltic to the whole of Europe, and for the restrictions to apply to a larger number of emissions, including nitrogen.’
Challenge 4. With the steady decline in oil imports in Rotterdam, can we expect the petrochemical and chemical plants in the port to all close up sooner or later?
Eric: ‘By no means. Chemical production on the basis of fossil feedstocks will be replaced by production on the basis of vegetable products. Sugar beets, for instance, or wheat, soy roughage, wood residuals. In fact, this process is already in full swing in the port of Rotterdam. We already have the largest biobased or ‘renewable’ – that’s the term we generally use – cluster in Europe, with four vegetable oil refineries, four biofuel plants and two biochemical production plants. And our ambition is to realise significant further growth in this sector: we’ve reserved 80 ha for these activities at Maasvlakte 2, of which some 40 ha are still available. Passing by one of these facilities, you wouldn’t be able to tell from the outside whether it processes fossil or vegetable products. They use the same conduits, pipelines and so on. The big difference is that you don’t have to worry about CO2 emissions in the latter case. Why is that? Allow me to offer an example. Imagine you’re operating a plant that converts sugar beets into biofuel. When this fuel is combusted, it releases CO2. But since the sugar beet farm has already planted new beets that extract CO2 from the air, on balance, you have zero carbon emissions.
Nico: ‘It’s about more than just introducing new, clean industries. It’s also about developing a sustainable way of thinking – of doing business. People won’t automatically change the way they do business in the port: we need to introduce new revenue models that reward a sustainable approach. Take a water company that supplies process water to industry. If this company weren’t paid for every litre of water supplied, but for providing a ‘cooling’ service, for example, this would stimulate the company to provide this service using as little water as possible. You need to try to build in incentives of this kind wherever you can. And as Port Authority, we also try to serve as intermediaries in this process. For example, we are presently working to link a bioplastics manufacturer to a firm that can recycle plastics without any loss of quality. Usually, each recycling round further degrades the quality of the collected plastic, so that ultimately the only things you can use it for are road markers. But in this case, the plastic you get is even suited for food packaging. This basically closes the loop.’
Challenge 5. This is a challenge to our imagination: we hop into a time machine and travel to the port of 2050. What will we find?
Eric: ‘Let’s start with what you’ll hear – or rather, what you won’t hear. Because the port will be a lot quieter, since far more processes will run on electricity or hydrogen. The next thing you’ll notice is the Maasvlakte 2 coastline, which you can clearly make out thanks to a wonderful line of wind turbines. And wherever you look, you’ll see solar panels: on the roofs, on the water – similar to the ones you can already find at Slufter.’
Nico: ‘At the same time, I think that we will still recognise many elements of today’s port in the port of 2050. You’ll still see a lot of large container ships and there will still be all sorts of chemical plants with their characteristic pipes and conduits. Except they’ll be running on organic feedstocks, and they won’t be emitting a vapour plume, since we won’t be letting the residual heat go to waste anymore.’