New competence hub in Genk investigates underground high-voltage lines

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GENK, 26 March 2024 –  EnergyVille recently established a new centre of expertise on high voltage. Etch, the Energy Transmission Competence Hub, was kicked off today in Genk in the presence of Flemish Minister for Innovation Jo Brouns and around eighty international stakeholders.

The energy system is in full transition, with a key role for the electricity grid. To meet climate targets, the current electricity grid needs to triple by 2050, to accommodate the increased electrification caused by electric cars, heat pumps, electrification in industry, etc. and to facilitate the new renewable energy from offshore wind and solar power from the south. Moreover, such a high-voltage electricity network is best constructed underground, in order to maximise public support and avoid controversy around new overhead high-voltage power lines like Ventilus. The appropriate technology for this is high-voltage direct current, HVDC. EnergyVille is therefore establishing Etch, the Energy Transmission Competence Hub. The competence centre was kicked off today in Genk in the presence of Flemish Minister of Innovation Jo Brouns, at a conference with some eighty international stakeholders (industrial players, researchers, policymakers,…). The event was organised in cooperation with the SET Plan working group on DC technology and the DCforEU consortium.

Minister Jo Brouns: “Flanders is already a central and essential node in the Western European high-voltage grid. EnergyVille’s new high-voltage expertise centre here at Thor park will develop new technology in the field of underground high-voltage grids through research and innovation. The Flemish government is investing 14 million euros in this, for a 4-year research programme and the research infrastructure. This is how we strengthen our knowledge here, in order to also play these assets strongly internationally and gain a global pioneering position.”

Etch, unique centre of expertise for research on underground high-voltage lines

Etch’s ambition is to become an internationally renowned centre of competence in the field of technology and operation of future high-voltage electricity networks. These networks will increasingly feature high-voltage direct current technology and be constructed with underground cables. High-voltage direct current (HVDC) is essential to connect offshore wind energy to the transmission grid and can also enable interconnections between different countries. For example, a meshed HVDC network could connect countries around the North Sea.

“The expertise centre is specifically investigating the potential of HVDC for underground high-voltage connections, and in doing so it also provides a simulation centre for testing and demonstrating this new technology in an environment as close to reality as possible,” says Professor Van Hertem, Director of Etch. “Specifically, in our laboratory we will be able to simulate the high-voltage grid in very great detail, and we will be able to better understand the interaction with new components. This will then also allow us to investigate the bottlenecks of a direct-current high-voltage grid and/or a hybrid high-voltage grid – with overhead and underground, AC and DC connections. For example, new inverters connecting DC cables to the current AC high-voltage grid will be tested in a secure digital environment,” adds Professor Van Hertem.

A triple aim: research, industrial development and training

However, research alone is not enough to realise the power grid of the future. Etch therefore plans to work on three pillars: research, industrial development and training. In terms of research, the centre wants to remove technological barriers around security and grid stability. Secondly, it wants to support industry in Flanders and beyond in creating new products and tools for future electricity networks. Thirdly, it also plans to provide the field with targeted training on HVDC and underground cables for Flemish, Belgian and international partners. This way, the shortage of sufficient technically trained manpower to implement the innovations will be addressed.

Role of the power grid in the energy transition

The kick-off was part of a broader academic conference around the role of the power grid in the energy transition. Indeed, the European Union and its industry have set ambitious goals to transform the current energy system into one that is sustainable, reliable and cost-effective (Fit-for-55, RepowerEU). This comes with challenges for the electricity system, but also for materials and for industry (Net Zero Industrial Act). Key conclusions from the academic conference will be shared with the Council of Ministers under the Belgian Presidency of the Council of the European Union.

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