How, specifically, do we achieve the energy transition? UCLouvain researchers are coordinating a major research project aimed at answering this crucial question by 2024, in order to provide politicians and actors with tools to make the transition happen.
‘The world is talking more about renewable energy,’ says Francesco Contino, a professor at the UCLouvain Institute of Mechanics, Materials and Civil Engineering (iMMC). ‘But how do we make the transition plausibly real? Among the many possibilities under consideration is by re-evaluating the place of synthetic fuels in the transition.’
A research proposal to answer the many questions concerning the transition was submitted to the Energy Transition Fund by a consortium of four researchers at iMMC and UCLouvain’s Louvain4Energy platform: Véronique Dias, Hervé Jeanmart, Emmanuel De Jaeger and Francesco Contino. Their Belgian Energy System (BEST) proposal for a four-year project beginning in 2020 was accepted last March. It’s a way of supporting research whose goal is to provide politicians and actors with tools to make the transition happen.
‘As a country, we need to ensure an ecological transition by 2040-50,’ Prof. Contino explains. ‘By 2024, the BEST project wants to provide specific answers in a context where we can no longer rely solely on electrical energy. A much broader paradigm shift is needed for the energy transition.’ Researchers no longer regard electricity as the main energy carrier but rather as one of several. Synthetic fuels such as hydrogen, ammonia, methane, and methanol, or biomass fuels, will have to be added to the ‘package’.
Four explicit research areas
‘Today, we still rely on a natural stock that took millions of years to form: fossil fuels,’ Prof. Contino continues. ‘But we won’t be able to use it without consequences for the environment.’ Faced with this realistic and necessary observation, the BEST project is launching research in four areas.
- Taking inventory of energy vectors necessary to achieve the transition in Belgium. ‘For example,’ Prof. Contino says, ‘we’re going to look at all forms of mobility rather than at only electric cars.’
- Developing scenarios. ‘What if the price of petrol changes? What if transport changes? Is building a natural gas-fuelled power plant an intelligent decision? Should citizens be advised to acquire batteries to limit uncertainty? These questions are only the tip of the iceberg of uncertainties that we need to take into account in our analyses.’
- Integrating fuels such as hydrogen into our consumption channels, i.e. how can the electricity grid, now and in the future, absorb this paradigm shift? ‘To do this, we need to change our way of looking at the energy network, because we’ll have to store energy in a concentrated manner, with a high-energy density, in order to achieve our goals. With significant penetration by renewable energy, tomorrow we’ll experience power peaks five times greater than today.’
- Analysing the best technologies for storing and tapping the energy in synthetic fuels. This will involve analysing conventional power plants, small decentralised units, and transport. The BEST project intends to take storage challenges by the horns. ‘Our mission is to have a very clear idea of the guidelines to be given to our governments to ensure the best and quickest possible transition.’
A team with a proven track record
One element in particular helped the proposal become a project: ‘Our consortium has already proven itself!’ Prof. Contino says. ‘Most of the researchers in our team have already worked on another project, which was the initiator of BEST: the FREE project, sponsored by Engie Electrabel. So we know each other very well ... which means we know how to pool our skills quickly.’
‘Work packages’, or work centres, have been organised to address the major questions. ‘Each centre will work in a relatively autonomous way, while meeting several times a year to contribute to a common mission. Around ten theses will be launched and numerous contacts will be made with industry and public authorities to get feedback from the field.’
In these main areas, tasks will be divided between four UCLouvain researchers: Emmanuel De Jaeger, who will manage the ‘networks’ aspect; Hervé Jeanmart, whose expertise is crucial in terms of energy systems; Véronique Dias, who was already at the helm of the FREE project and is taking over the reins of BEST; and Prof. Contino, who will integrate uncertainties into the developed models. BEST uses an interuniversity team thus alongside the UCLouvain researchers the University of Mons is participating in the project’s cogeneration aspect and seeking to understand how to apply energy neo-vectors in current turbines and power stations; ULB is scrutinising possible scenarios; Ghent University is working on optimising the vectors for transport; and VUB is integrating these vectors into conventional power stations while also studying biomass vectors.
‘We’ll work together to progress rapidly and discuss our results as much as possible, in the hope of moving forward as efficiently as possible,’ Prof. Contino says.
Why did it take so long to launch projects on the details of achieving the transition?
Energy transition has become a byword everywhere, a synonym for the process of decarbonising our energy. But it goes far beyond that, because we need to radically change the way we consume and produce energy. It’s as much a societal transition as it is an energy transition.
In concrete terms, researchers have been working on this for many years, at various levels. But the first signs of the transition are only now beginning to appear, which is prompting public authorities to fund such research.
Why can’t we rely entirely on electrical energy?
In Belgium we only consume 20% of our energy in the form of electricity. It’s clear that we’re moving towards more electricity because it’s an energy vector that has its advantages, but betting everything on it isn’t optimum because electrons aren’t stored directly. Electricity has to be converted in order to be stored. That’s where other vectors become interesting, especially when we imagine storage over long periods (months).
> FREE : assurer une distribution d’énergie renouvelable en toute saison
> Synthetic fuels. The future of energy
> Greener hydrogen
> Hydrogen’s H-hour
A glance at Francesco Contino's bio
Francesco Contino earned his master’s degree in electro-mechanical engineering in 2006. He spent one year learning Chinese at Nankai University in Tianjin, China, then completed his PhD at UCLouvain from 2007 to 2011 as a Belgian Fund for Scientific Research fellow. In 2011-12, at the University of Orléans, he completed a postdoc on the impact of a particular fuel on engine performance. In October 2012, he joined the Vrije Universiteit Brussel as an assistant professor. In 2018, he became associate professor at the same university. Since 2019, he has been an associate professor at UCLouvain. He is a member of the board of the Belgian Society of Automotive Engineers and chairman of the Belgian Section of The Combustion Institute.