Value-sensitive design on the North Sea


Value-sensitive design on the North Sea

Scientists and companies realise a robust industry at sea

Making wind energy cheaper is not just a matter of technology in iron and steel but also of good collaboration and ingenious designs. Researchers and companies are charting the field.

Viewed from the beach, the North Sea appears to be empty but the opposite is true. Sand extractors, herring fishers, mussel breeders, gas and oil drillers and their suppliers, military personnel, harbour masters, coaster captains and seals coexist in a delicate balance with each other. Nobody on the North Sea welcomes the hassle of large wind parks with a load of safety rules in their wake. Ernst van Zuijlen, a former project developer, who on behalf of the Top Consortium Knowledge and Innovation Offshore Wind (TKI Wind op Zee) under the top sector Energy leads the Offshore Wind research programme knows all about this. 'We are the new kid on the block. First of all we were ignored, next people became angry because we had a licence and only then did they start to talk with us.'

We are the new kid on the block.
- Ernst van Zuijlen

TKI Wind op Zee, together with the Netherlands Wind Energy Association and companies like Eneco and Siemens among others, eagerly joined a project in the NWO programme Responsible Innovation a little over a year ago. The aim was to analyse the values and value conflicts concerning wind energy. The industrial partners did not participate out of a sense of idealism but from a clear self-interest. Since the late 1980s, wind turbines on land have become the object of an ongoing battle between turbine owners and fierce opponents. A false start in the sector's opinion. Offshore wind turbines offer a new chance. In ten years' time, one quarter of the Dutch electricity supply should come from offshore sources according to the Energy Agreement reached last summer. This time the hope is that a robust industry can be set up by offering resistance to the technology push. The sector now aims to take into account in an early stage the values at stake for all parties involved and embed them in the design.

Examples of values embedded in design

Examples of values embedded in design

Robust industry

To support that process, a team led by professor Rolf Künneke with experts in economics, sociology, physics and philosophy, together with representatives from everyday practice has brought clarity to the maze of values that play a role on the North Sea. The aim is to ensure the robust establishment of the new industry in a way that does justice to as many of the values as possible, even those values that at first glance appear to be conflicting. That can be achieved in the technological design of the wind parks and equally in the institutional design of the associated processes, for example in the area of licensing policy and laws and legislation. Just like the Oosterscheldekering (Eastern Scheldt storm surge barrier) could count on support from all quarters because it protects the residents of Zeeland from flooding and by means of sluice-gate-type doors it permits the ecologically important tidal flow, the intelligent design of wind parks could incorporate different values.

The Oosterscheldedam lets the tide through but also contains sluices that can close during a storm. In this way both nature and safety are served.The Oosterscheldedam lets the tide through but also contains sluices that can close during a storm. In this way both nature and safety are served.


'Under the current rules, gas platforms and wind parks are difficult to reconcile with each other,' says Ernst van Zuijlen. 'Platform owners want to be able to bring any wounded personnel by helicopter to the mainland 24 hours a day without any inconvenience from wind turbines that could cause turbulence along the helicopter's route. The value of safety for the platform workers conflicts here with the value of sustainability for society. But if platform owners and wind park owners sit down together then creative solutions can be found to unite these different values. For example, they can decide to keep a route free for helicopters or agree that in the event of an emergency on a platform the wind turbines are switched off. The sectors might even be able to strengthen each other's economic values. For example, by laying a cable from the wind park to the platform so that diesel motors are no longer needed to supply electricity. Or by converting the gas still present in an almost empty gas source into electricity that can be transported to the mainland by the cables from the wind park.'

Many more ideas can be conceived to unite different values. For example, turning wind parks into works of art so that coastal residents no longer consider them an eyesore but instead fascinating to look at. Cultivating algae in wind parks for the production of transport fuels. Inventing new fishing techniques so that fish can be caught between the wind turbines. Converting the electricity from the wind turbines into a transport fuel for cargo ships so that these can refuel at sea. Designing clean electrical fishing vessels that berth at a wind turbine to charge up their batteries.

We now know where conflicts occur and who we must talk with.
- Ernst van Zuijlen

'In the Energy Agreement it has been agreed that the costs of wind energy should decrease by forty percent over the next ten years', explains Ernst van Zuijlen. In his view, that reduction in costs is not just a matter of using a different type of rotor blade or a lighter material. Integrated designs, combining functions, the correct licences and healthy competition will also contribute to this. For all parties involved, working together is cheaper than getting in each other's way and translating risks into surcharges and insurances. Describing such complex system with all of the interests and values at stake is no simple task. 'The framework that the researchers produced with us will certainly help direct the following steps. We now know where conflicts occur and whom we must talk with. That is a big help.'

Young branch of science

Rolf Künneke, economist at Delft University of Technology, is proud of the framework of values that his group has made for the wind energy sector. He emphasises that the perspective of value-sensitive design reaches far beyond the North Sea and the costs of wind energy. 'The switch to sustainable energy is a fundamental system change, which elicits new and difficult questions. Are we prepared to pay more for energy if it is generated sustainably? Should energy just like drinking water be the same price everywhere in the Netherlands? Or do we allow the market to determine the price and make electricity on the coast available more cheaply? Who is responsible for the supply network? How safe is safe? Who bears the risks? In about thirty years' time the costs of wind energy will be under control. Then other issues will play a role. That is why we not only looked at what is accepted now but also what will be acceptable in the longer term.


We don’t just look at what is accepted now, but also at what is acceptable in the long term.
- Rolf Künneke

Acceptable for society as a whole, the market and for specific interest groups. Without a consistent vision on the interaction within that triangle the policy will not work in the longer term.' By way of illustration, Künneke refers to the gas sector. 'If the long-term effects had been systematically described fifty years ago, gas might have been pumped out of the ground more slowly, buildings in Groningen would have been constructed in a more earthquake-proof manner, and some of the gas profits would have been used to structurally support old monuments. Then the current serious problems could have been prevented or would have at least of been foreseen.'

An angry resident in Groningen comes to present his case about earthquake-related damage at the NAM office in Loppersum. If the long-term effects of gas drilling had been taken into account fifty years ago then the problems we now face could have been prevented.An angry resident in Groningen comes to present his case about earthquake-related damage at the NAM office in Loppersum. If the long-term effects of gas drilling had been taken into account fifty years ago then the problems we now face could have been prevented.


Research into value-sensitive design is a young branch of science, which fits well in a long research tradition at Delft University of Technology. There technology, economics and administration have traditionally been studied in relation to each other. A new aspect is that these three pillars are now also linked to theories about ethics. That enables both science and society to advance, thinks Künneke. 'We now face major societal challenges, for example, in the areas of energy, cyber security, healthcare and mobility. In all of these areas new technologies are being developed with far-reaching implications. We cannot evade the need to sketch the grand picture. Only then can we work on solutions that will really help the world to advance.'