Han Fennema is standing on a quay in Eamshaven dock on the northern tip of the Netherlands, dwarfed by a massive ship, the Golar Igloo, 293 metres long.
“When you are underneath these huge ships, you feel very small,” says Mr Fennema, chief executive of Gasunie, which owns the Dutch gas transmission network. “But when I walked around this quay in March, it was empty, really empty.”
However, within six months, his team turned the barren site into one of Europe’s energy hubs – and it has helped to keep EU homes warm and gas flowing after Vladimir Putin switched off the taps from Russia amid his invasion of Ukraine.
The EemsEnergyTerminal, built at record speed, is now expecting to unload, process and resupply some eight billion cubic metres (bcm) a year. The Golar Igloo is semi-permanently docked there as new floating terminals for liquified natural gas (LNG). With a gross weight of 110,000 tonnes, it can carry up to 170,000 cubic metres of the fuel
Alongide it is another vessel, the Exmar S188. Known as floating storage and regasification units (FSRUs), the ships receive LNG at a temperature of -160°C from other carriers and bring it to a gaseous state so they can feed it into pipelines. Golar Igloo is one of 48 FSRUs currently in operation worldwide.
Mr Fennema says the Eamshaven project was conceived immediately after Russia invaded Ukraine last year, when he realised that the war could lead to Moscow cutting off its pipeline gas supplies to the rest of the EU.
If Gasunie could create a floating LNG terminal, it could help safeguard Dutch and EU energy security. “We sent our plan to the Dutch minister of climate and energy,” he says.
He then homed in on Eamshaven. “You need a deep harbour and you need a very good connection to the gas grid. And quickly, we found out that the best place to do that is in Eamshaven, where you have the harbour but you also have to have a quay of 500 metres or so.”
It is in Groningen province, the location of Europe’s biggest natural gas field, so it already has the infrastructure to pump gas to the rest of the country and to neighbouring Germany.
A nearby coal-fired power plant helped provide the heat needed to warm up the LNG. Gasunie, which runs a 12,000km network of gas pipelines in the Netherlands and a further 3,100km in Germany, only had to build four kilometres of new pipeline between the port and the grid.
When Shell and Cez committed last May to 7bcm a year at Eamshaven, Gasunie began turning the quay into its hub. Eamshaven is sometimes hit with fierce winds, so the FSRUs needed tugs and heavy anchors to lash them firmly against the quays.
Even before Russia cut off its pipeline gas supplies last year, the EU was already rushing to find alternative energy sources and build the infrastructure needed for them.
LNG imports – mostly fracked US gas – are the easiest short-term solution. LNG is 600 times smaller than the original volume in its gaseous state, and half the weight of water.
Dozens of LNG facilities were commissioned across the EU, with five new terminals coming online in Germany alone.
LNG import terminals normally take at least five years to build, but Mr Fennema pushed his engineers to do it in a fraction of the time.
“I’m very proud of all the people that built this in half a year,” he says. “Our first LNG carrier came in September. And we sent it out on the grid the next day.
“We now expect about 80 of these ships per year. So, every four or five days one of these carriers is coming in and the other carrier is sailing out.”
Total Dutch gas demand is about 30bcm per year, so the Eamshaven port will cover around a quarter of it. Germany may take another two years to install 56bcm of domestic LNG import capacity, about the same as it imported by pipe from Russia in 2021.
The floating terminal has helped get the EU through the winter, but the bloc is looking beyond fossil fuels as it shifts to a zero-carbon economy.
Mr Fennema says Gasunie will be part of this energy transition and is already developing pilot projects in green hydrogen. “We will gradually shift to more electricity, so more electrification of our society, and more hydrogen,” he says.
Last December, the Dutch government tasked Gasunie to create a hydrogen network in the North Sea, using offshore wind energy to help power large-scale green hydrogen production.
Mr Fennema says he expects the hydrogen network to be ready by 2030. And the gas pipelines in Eamshaven and elsewhere will be part of it – he says 85 per cent of Gasunie’s natural gas pipelines will eventually be repurposed into a hydrogen grid.