Nico van Dooren and Stijn van Els, frontrunners of the energy transition at the Port of Rotterdam Authority:


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The port of Rotterdam has a strong reputation, in a range of areas. Including clean energy and low-emission chains. The port is working hard on various projects that are intended to improve the sustainability of its operations. And in some cases, these projects are already turning a profit. Nico van Dooren and Stijn van Els from the Port of Rotterdam Authority tell us about the key to Rotterdam’s success, and offer a glimpse into what may well be the most important transition the port has ever gone through.

The port of Rotterdam never stops developing. This has always been the case, but nowadays it possibly rings more true than ever. In the previous century, the port landscape was radically transformed by the rise of container shipping and handling. And now the port is once again facing a watershed in its history. The fossil era is drawing to a close, and this necessitates yet another transformation. Rotterdam is in the midst of this transition, working hard to build a new, sustainable economy for future decades.

‘We still have our industrial cluster. But over the past few years, it has shifted its focus to clean and low-emission solutions’

Nico van Dooren

‘Investments pay off’

For many years, the port was characterised by a large industrial cluster that primarily focussed on fossil fuels. No less than 15 percent of Europe’s total power requirement runs via Rotterdam. On the one hand, this is good for local employment. The sector is directly and indirectly responsible for hundreds of thousands of jobs. On the other hand, this cluster has a major responsibility as far as carbon emissions are concerned. ‘We are working hard to bring about future-proof change in this area,’ says Nico van Dooren, Director New Business at the Port of Rotterdam Authority. Together with the other members of his team, Van Dooren has initiated a number of new projects. These initiatives are then executed by Director Commercial Delivery, Stijn van Els, and his team. ‘In this role, we strive to be ‘doers’ rather than ‘dreamers’,’ adds Van Els.

And this is more than just talk – as borne out by the team’s numerous success stories. ‘A successful entrepreneur looks at both the short and the long term and is able to link operational results to sustainability,’ according to Van Els. ‘By setting to work on the right ideas in time and investing in promising technology like hydrogen, solar panels or electric shipping, you can start making money today – while simultaneously improving your prospects for future growth and income.’

Changing in three steps

By now, Rotterdam has built up a wide range of attractive facilities that the private sector can use to its advantage. Van Dooren: ‘We still have our industrial cluster. But over the past few years, it has shifted its focus to clean and low-emission solutions.’ The leading – and indeed most decisive – role is still played by the different companies in the port area. The Port of Rotterdam Authority could sooner be called a facilitator – serving as a kind of catalyst or accelerator and bringing potential partners in touch with each other. Together with these companies, the Port of Rotterdam Authority works to realise a carbon-neutral port, in three steps:

  1. Efficiency measures within the industrial sector, combined with the construction of the required energy infrastructure;
  2. Transition to a new energy system based on electric power and hydrogen;
  3. Transition to a new system of raw materials, feedstocks and fuels.

As mentioned, the partners have already achieved successes in each of these fields. ‘Take the ‘Vondelingenwarmte’ (‘Vondelingen Heat’) project, for example, in which residual heat from the Shell refinery is distributed via a pipeline for the sustainable heating of 16,000 households,’ explains Van Els. ‘Or the wind turbines that are popping up like daisies. At Maasvlakte, you can even find the world’s biggest wind turbine, with a peak capacity of no less than 12 Megawatts.’

One success story as far as the transition in raw materials is concerned is the development of companies that use sugar beet, maize or vegetable oils for the production of e.g. bio-kerosene or bio-ethanol. The port of Rotterdam is home to the world’s largest renewable industry cluster. Here, bio-based firms take advantage of an endless array of options in the throughput of all imaginable forms of renewable materials and the distribution of end products.

‘Tomorrow started years ago’

The projects all contribute in some way to the realisation of the targets set out in the Dutch government’s Climate Agreement. And they are the logical outcome of years of preparation. As early as 2007, the Port of Rotterdam Authority had formulated an ambitious target for Rotterdam: by 2025, it wanted to have cut the emissions of the port and industrial cluster by 50% (compared to 1990), and in 2030 by 60%.

‘We also commissioned a study into decarbonisation pathways from the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy. Among other things, this study was intended to identify scenarios that could help the port effectively prepare for a sustainable future. We then consulted with the private sector and political representatives to establish Europe’s requirements in terms of sustainability by 2050. We used the results of this second study to determine which actions we need to take right now,’ recaps Van Dooren. ‘In Rotterdam, tomorrow truly started years ago.’

Collaboration is key to success

Van Dooren and Van Els agree on what lies ahead for the port: ‘Rotterdam will remain Europe’s premier hub; closely connected with Antwerp, the Ruhr Area and the hinterland. And with the global economy at its ‘front end’. It will continue to offer employment to hundreds of thousands of people. And companies will still be drawn to Rotterdam as a business location: here you can access a large pool of qualified employees, know what to expect and be confident of earning money – provided you invest wisely. This isn’t likely to change any time soon. One thing that will change is local emission levels: they’ll be drastically reduced as fossil fuels and feedstocks make way for new, cleaner substances and materials.’

The region is already home to a range of impressive projects, in which all sorts of players work closely together. And each time round, this collaboration proves the key to success. Take the Porthos project, for example, a joint venture of the Port of Rotterdam Authority, Gasunie and EBN, in which Air Liquide, Air Products, Exxon Mobile and Shell have joined strengths. The partners will be storing 2.5 million tonnes of CO2 per year in empty offshore gas fields. Or the ZES (Zero Emission Services) project, in which Engie, ING, Wärtsilä and the Port of Rotterdam Authority work together to improve the sustainability of the inland shipping sector. The partners will be fitting inland vessels with exchangeable battery containers for zero-emission transport. Brewer Heineken has already committed to ZES for a full ten years, transporting its beer via a sustainable shipping connection between its Zoeterwoude brewery and the port of Moerdijk.

Any company can play a part

‘It’s crucial to work together. If you try to do it all by yourself as a company, projects like these can quickly become too expensive or too risky,’ says Van Els. ‘But success definitely isn’t determined by investments alone. Other factors like your partners’ commitment are at least as important.’

And the government also plays a role in these developments. In the case of the ZES project, for instance, the partners needed charging stations for the vessels’ battery containers. Van Els: ‘As the Port of Rotterdam Authority, we bring different parties together. We occupy a rather special position, since we combine technical expertise and years of experience with both the public sector and market players’ needs and requirements. On top of this, we are honest, impartial and ready to help anyone who asks our support.’

One project that shows how successful transitions don’t merely take shape within large corporations but also offer opportunities to medium-sized businesses and smaller players is the RAMLAB initiative. RAMLAB, short for Rotterdam Additive Manufacturing Lab, is the fruit of a partnership between Valk Welding, Autodesk and IBM. The lab performs research into the large-scale 3D printing of metal designs for port-related industry. A clean and sustainable production method, in other words – and once again a fine example of a successful partnership between different firms. ‘And that’s how it should go,’ says Van Els. ‘As an entrepreneur, you don’t want to sit on your hands. We always advise companies to find the right partner or partners so they can set to work together on their transition ideas.’

We need to increase scale and step up the pace of change

Stijn van Els


Stepping up the pace

Despite these different successes, Van Dooren and Van Els feel they still have a lot of ground to cover. ‘There are a lot of things that still need to be done – and if it were up to us, they could be done even faster. We need to increase scale and step up the pace of change,’ says Van Els. ‘The Dutch may be very good at building consensus, but our neighbours to the east are better at taking it up a few notches. In that sense too, we can learn a lot from each other.’

‘It may take a lot of work before we’re satisfied, but we try to be critical yet constructive – and we’re incredibly impatient,’ adds Van Dooren. ‘But fortunately, so are the companies in our port area. And this has allowed us to significantly commit to major themes like hydrogen.’ The Director Energy and Industry is aware that particularly in the case of these big themes, you need to be in it for the long haul. ‘The transition is a complex affair, and it costs a huge amount of energy to get the ball rolling. For example, you find a number of different energy systems in Europe. Arranging the various aspects of something like hydrogen management in Germany and the Netherlands, for example, requires coordination and takes up a lot of time. Sometimes, the best thing you can do is wait until something gains momentum. And we presently have this momentum. I expect that in the foreseeable future, we will be able to reap the rewards of our efforts in this area and use hydrogen-powered vessels to supply the port of Duisburg, for example.’


Van Els: ‘Over the past 150 years, the port has continued to expand from east to west, steadily developing into the port it is today. In the years ahead, this expansion will hopefully reverse its course, spreading the innovation of the Maasvlakte port area back east – and covering the hinterland in the process.’

Van Dooren: ‘We still have a long way to go for that. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t proud of what we’ve already achieved together with all our partners. And the value and necessity of the port’s transition are no longer subject to debate. Nowadays, the discussion is about how we’ll be jointly shaping the port’s future.’

The two have a number of practical tips to share with companies in the port. ‘The key thing for companies is that they join other parties on the road towards a sustainable future,’ says Van Els. ‘Don’t be afraid to invest. Some measures can be fairly simple, like installing solar panels on the roof of your building, or improving efficiency within your organisation. Investments like that can pay for themselves from the outset. And don’t forget to check what’s possible within the SDE++ programme: a new funding scheme set up by the government to encourage carbon savings.’ ‘And don’t be overly cautious,’ concludes Van Dooren. ‘Don’t wait too long with setting to work on your ideas. And feel free to ask us if we can help. It’s often a bad idea to stay ‘on the fence’. Taking on new challenges, learning, developing new business: as an entrepreneur, that’s how you build a successful, future-proof enterprise.’

Stijn van Els

Since early 2019, Stijn has taken on the role of Director Commercial Delivery at the Port of Rotterdam Authority, responsible for the delivery of key energy transition and other complex transactions. Stijn is Supervisory Board member of TenneT, the operator of the high-voltage networks throughout the Netherlands and most of Germany and therefore plays an essential role in the energy transition in Europe. He is also chairman of the supervisory board of EVOS, an independent storage company. Furthermore, Stijn is the chairman of the Supervisory Board of IDA Foundation. Before joining the Port of Rotterdam Authority, Stijn built up a distinguished career at Shell through a range of technical, commercial, project and senior leadership roles.

Nico van Dooren

As Director New Business of the Port of Rotterdam Authority, Nico van Dooren (1970) is commercial responsible for business development & portfolio management within the Port of Rotterdam Authority. Business development with a strong focus on energy transition. Nico also holds responsibility for the program on energy transition for the port of Rotterdam. This port wide program consists of business development projects focusing on energy transition such as the development of carbon capture & storage, biobased chemistry and renewable energy, etc. The motto of this program is: Renew the existing and embrace the new in order to achieve a CO2 net neutral port in 2050. Nico also acts as managing director for RSP (Rotterdam Shore Power), RAMLAB (start-up of the port of Rotterdam focussing on 3D metal printing) and for two joint ventures of the port of Rotterdam MultiCore (together with Vopak) for lease of pipelines, and RC2 (together with German ARG) for transport by pipeline of ethylene. Nico van Dooren has a background in strategic planning and consultancy.


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