Time to put renewable energy initiatives centre stage in the Netherlands

Renewable energies play a minor role in politics and media of the Netherlands. While local initiatives have the potential to lead the way, the country and its economy are still built around fossil fuels. Suzanne Schenk compares the situation to Germany and demands a policy plan with not only more ambitious specified goals for 2050 but also for 2030.

Wind Power in the Netherlands

Not yet living up to its full potential: Wind power in the Netherlands. (Photo by Simon Schoeters, CC BY 2.0)

After living and working in Germany for one year and being back in the Netherlands, I am – once again – shocked at the little attention paid to the energy transition discussion in Dutch national politics and media . Especially so given that great progress was made last year: energy generated by local solar initiatives grew by 250%  and is projected to double again in 2013. Doesn’t this positive development deserve some coverage in days of enduring crisis?

This would have been a great story for the Dutch government’s ambition of ‘100% sustainable energy supply in 2050’. Strangely, that has not been the way politicians or the media have framed the current situation.

The old corporatist approach

What is also odd is that nowhere in the government’s future energy vision is there a definition of ‘100% sustainable energy’. Looking at practical policies – most of them focussing on the intermediate goal of 16% ‘sustainable’ energy in 2020 – carbon capture and storage and co-firing of biomass in coal fired power plants are presented as the main technologies, and even nuclear energy has a role. This reflects how established technologies and industries and centralised supply of energy play a key role in the Dutch vision of sustainability. Additionally, it speaks volumes that the ministry responsible for most energy policy is the Ministry of Economic Affairs. In short, in the eyes of the Dutch government sustainable energy does not necessarily mean renewable energy and plays second fiddle to economic growth.

This is worrying. Yet it makes sense when you realise that our current energy system is built around the extraction of natural gas from our own grounds and large-scale import, refinement and export of oil (products). The majority of gas and oil (products) is exported, which means that it is a key economic sector and gives the Netherlands a key role in Northwestern Europe’s energy market. So, for the Dutch government it is an absolute priority to maintain this economic position before thinking about anything else.

Such vested industrial interests feature in national energy politics; this is reflected in the media.  Last month, for example, the disproportionately large amount of attention on and discussion ofshale gas dwarfed that of renewable energy. There is a lack of high level discussion in Dutch politics and in the media to put real challenges and solutions of the energy transition centre stage. The energy transition follows the Dutch corporatist approach, i.e. revolving around large companies. Of course it is important to involve large companies and secure economic stability but we seem to have missed out on other dimensions of the energy transition – namely, the power of other levels. Especially as compared to our German neighbour, there is only marginal discussion on renewable energy scenarios including large and small, public and private players on an equal basis, resulting in a variety of economic benefits.

The energy transition is happening – with or without us

It is hard to open up the energy discussion because heavyweight players like Shell and conservative powers in government fearing for the Dutch competitive position. But it is time to face the facts: The energy transition is happening – with or without us. Our competitive position related to the fossil fuel industry is on the down. Either the Netherlands can still jump on board and change its strategy, or we will remain one of the dirty countries in Europe – currently only England, Cyprus and Malta have lower clean energy rates than the Netherlands – and miss out on the benefits of the transition.

Local cooperatives take flight

However, there is hope. Similar to what is happening in Germany, in the Netherlands local players (private, public or both) are also becoming drivers of change. Despite a relatively small number of national government incentives, solar energy cooperatives, privately owned wind turbines and other local initiatives have quickly grown to about 400 initiatives in the last five years. Not only in the field of renewable energy but also in the fields of social security, food and health are local cooperatives booming in the Netherlands.  This shows that people are willing to invest and take some risk in order to create local security and economic benefits in the long run. That deserves more attention on higher levels and the opportunity for others to replicate.

At the moment, renewable energy consumption constitutes only 4.5% of the total energy consumption in the Netherlands. The increased budget for small scale renewable energy projects (SDE+) from € 1.5 billion in 2010 to € 3 billion this year is a step in the right direction. The impact of such measures is immediately visible in the growth of local solar initiatives. In the field of wind power – among renewable energies the most mentioned in Dutch policy plans – there is a world of benefits to be gained. Plans for small and large on- and offshore wind parks are being implemented and many more are on the drawing table. Unlike frontrunners , however, in the Netherlands conventional energy players like Essent are given support and therefore are the main owners of these parks (99%). Meanwhile in trailblazing countries citizens are active co-owners (50% in Germany and 70% in Denmark).

A practical policy plan

It is time that the national government and media put the indispensable power of local renewable energy initiatives centre stage. The first thing we need is a coherent, supportive policy plan supported by a large majority in parliament – not a vague policy vision without practical policy implications. We need a practical policy plan with a central role for renewable energy by 2030, not a slow transition with an important fossil fuel component until 2050. It should outline a clear and stable investment climate for renewable energy projects at all levels, and the expanded SDE+ is a first step. It is not too late to decrease support for technologies that are not truly sustainable, such as biomass and shale gas, and increase focus on and investment in capacity and infrastructure for solar and wind energy. In order for any such plan to succeed, we need to have a fair and lively energy discussion involving all people, not just economic heavyweights. Hopefully this will be reflected in the ‘Nationaal Energieakkoord’ (National Energy Agreement) currently under negotiation by more than 40 stakeholders.

I think the people are ready. Is our government ready, too?

This article was first published at World Future Council. Suzanne Schenk (@SuzanneSchenk) is a graduate in development studies. She has worked in the field of development and climate change in the Netherlands and Germany.


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