In recent weeks, the regional newspapers have paid attention in two weekend editions to some important pillars of the climate agreement: wind and solar energy.
In the Energy of the Future series, readers were informed in short and actually quite bluntly about the consequences for nature and the landscape and the nuisance for the environment. In addition, the journalist paid a lot of attention to subsidies and money flows involved in this development and, one-sidedly, implied thatthe motives of the initiators are mainly based on motive of financial gain.
In this series, articles appeared with the following “catchy headlines”:
- On the front page: Windmills threaten to deteriorate landscape. Energy transition requires direction (January 9, 2021).
- Appendix Part 1: Wind turbines dominate the landscape. Blessing for the environment, but welcome nowhere (January 9, 2021)
- Appendix Part 2: Solar parks, the new cash cow. Where wheat once grew, it is now being well harvested (January 16, 2021).
The journalist has obtained information from various experts. Landscape experts and legal advisers who assist local residents of the intended wind and solar parks. In my opinion, the series could have been made more nuanced by involving in its creation experts who work on sustainable energy projects. You don’t just get a sustainable energy project off the ground. It requires good substantiation and consideration of interests. Interest of individual neighbours but also the general social interest. This is the core of our work. Carefully considering and weighing up the facts. The English verb “to ponder” reflects this nicely. Hence the name of our consultancy: Pondera!
In this blog I give an insight into our work. Work that my colleagues and I do with a lot of passion and enthusiasm with the aim of contributing to a fossil-free society as much as possible. With our knowledge and expertise we assist processes and projects and keep an eye on the impact on the environment of humans and animals. In this blog I mainly focus on onshore solar and wind.
To understand why the energy transition concerns so many people, it is important to first consider the usefulness and necessity and the (inter)national climate agreements derived from this and our first national climate law.
Usefulness and necessity
Dutch energy management must become more sustainable and less dependent on finite fossil fuels, according to the 2015 Energy Report. Energy is a necessary condition for the functioning of all facets of society. Customers must be able to count on reliable energy at competitive prices. In view of the climate and the declining availability of fossil fuels, a transition to a sustainable energy system is necessary.
I have previously expressed my personal feelings about usefulness and necessity in a blog.
Climate agreement and climate law
The energy sector in the Netherlands is responsible for more than twenty percent of greenhouse gas emissions. Greenhouse gas emissions as a result of energy demand can be limited by saving energy and by using sustainable energy sources on a large scale. Such a change in the Dutch energy supply represents a significant effort. These ambitions are in line with objectives formulated in a European context to which the member states have committed themselves. In 2013, more than 40 organisations, including the government, employers, trade unions, nature and environmental organisations, other social organisations and financial institutions committed themselves to the Energy Agreement for sustainable growth. The Energy Agreement brings a sustainable energy supply one step closer. The Energy Agreement stipulates that by 2020 14% of all energy must be generated sustainably, with a further increase of this share to 16% in 2023. The aim of the agreement is also to create new jobs and have a positive effect on the energy consumption and thus the energy bill of consumers. The agreement includes ten pillars that will lead to sustainable energy generation. Scaling up renewable energy generation is one of these pillars.
The Senate adopted the private member’s bill for the Climate Act on 28 May 2019. The proposal sets climate targets for the government. At the same time, it is a framework for the development, effect measurement and method of accountability of the policy for the achievement of the statutory climate objectives. The main objective of the proposal is to achieve a 95% greenhouse gas reduction in the Netherlands in 2050 compared to 1990 as a result, and as an intermediate target to achieve a 49% greenhouse gas reduction in 2030 compared to 1990. In addition, the proposal contains the secondary objective of 100% CO2-neutral electricity production in 2050 (source: website Senate of the States General).
Direction and implementation lie with the energy regions
The implementation of the climate agreement and the law is the responsibility of the 30 energy regions (RES). Each region must develop a strategy and make a regional offer in which it contributes to the greater cause. Each region has now made a draft offer. In the run-up to this and even now, meetings with stakeholders are organised to do justice to everyone’s interests as much as possible. My colleague Jan-Willem Broersma has previously dedicated a blog to this.
Now that the usefulness and necessity and the agreements are clear, I will discuss the reasons why the switch to renewable energy should really be seen as a transition (major change) and act accordingly.
The energy demand changes the living environment and that is quite exciting
https://ponderaconsult.com/en/feasibility-study-and-location-study-2/People’s living environment is changing with the arrival of wind and solar parks. People often find change difficult and the accompanying uncertainty about what the future will look likecan leave them feeling uncomfortable. In order to promote the acceptance of the necessary interventions, governments and initiators involve local residents in the development of a vision and in the design of concrete plans. Information meetings and work sessions are organised for this. Pondera provides input for this (vision documents and/or technical / spatial explorations) and we also support our clients during meetings with stakeholders. We are happy to enter into a dialogue with local residents and other stakeholders about any concerns and answer questions and provide insight into the expected effects on their living environment.
Impact on the landscape
Solar parks can often be integrated into the landscape by working with ecological zones and paying attention to natural camouflaging edges. Wind turbines cannot be integrated into a Dutch landscape. Wind turbines literally add a layer to the landscape. Landscape values are taken into account in the selection of areas and the design of concrete plans. The energy regions have the task and ambition to carefully weigh up the importance of making energy production more sustainable and maintaining the quality of the landscape.
As mentioned, the quality of the landscape is one of the aspects that is considered in every development. This consideration is given a place in an environmental impact report (EIA), a spatial substantiation or in a spatial (zoning) plan. Pondera performs these services. We involve landscape experts who work with us to draw up a site-specific assessment and advise on the most suitable design and arrangement. More information about this service and our approach can be found via this link.
People and their (energy) needs have always had an impact on the landscape and the living environment. Recently I came across a video made by the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands (RCE) about the influence of our energy demand on the landscape over the past century.
Solar parks and wind turbines not only have an impact on the landscape, but can also cause nuisance to the immediate vicinity. People who live a short distance from solar and wind farms experience visual and sometimes noise nuisance, and with wind farms, shadow flicker can also be an issue. In a blog by my colleague Bouke Vogelaar, the phenomenon of shadow flicker is explained. In order to prevent unacceptable nuisance due to noise and shadow flicker, research must show that a solar or wind farm can at least meet the legal requirements. Pondera can investigate and calculate the effects of the noise emission and shadow flicker. If measures are necessary to comply with the legal standard, we advise on this.
A recurring concern among residents of (future) wind farms is, in particular, the fear of damage to health. Local residents are concerned that the noise from the wind turbine(s) will keep them awake and that low-frequency noise poses health risks. Opponents of wind farms often invite experts to substantiate this fear with research quoted out of context. At the request of the GGDs, the RIVM has investigated the influence of wind turbines on the perceptions and health of local residents. This refers to the low-frequency noise from wind turbines and that there is no evidence that this is a significant factor. My colleague Sergej van de Bilt discusses this in more detail in his blog entitled “Wind turbine noise and health: fact and fiction”. A recommended read!
In conversation with the surroundings
The government and initiators increasingly involve other stakeholders at an early stage. Because renewable energy often brings about a change in the living environment, it is important that there is a lot of interaction between these stakeholders (citizens, companies, foundations and cooperatives and various advisers) and the government and the initiators. Discussion groups are often set up to jointly investigate the opportunities and threats of the intended project. The discussion must reveal what wishes and concerns there are and what specific measures or agreements are necessary to enable the development and to get the project accepted as much as possible. To facilitate the conversation, we can use digital visualisations to sketch a realistic picture of the landscape impact of a future park. We also have a tool with which we can properly simulate the noise of a wind farm in its vicinity. In addition, we recommend visiting existing parks with stakeholders.
Experience has shown that in every project a group of people or organisations oppose the development. That is allowed. The objective is not to convince, but the conversation with the surroundings must ensure that the process is transparent, whereby, with respect for each other’s opinion, facts can be presented and any adjustments to the plan can be discussed. The final decision-making on a project is made by the administrators and representatives of the relevant competent authority. They consider whether the project is justified and whether it contributes to the public interest.
Advantages and disadvantages
When talking about sustainable energy projects, people are often quick to talk about the (un)fair distribution of benefits and burdens. In particular, the financial division is mentioned. The fact that generating sustainable energy in itself is a strong (social) desire is, in my opinion, often overlooked. From a financial point of view, the distribution of benefits and burdens is looked at. Administrators, but also citizens and journalists often speak with horror at the fact that it is mainly foreign investors running off with the profits. To prevent this, it has been agreed that local sustainable energy initiatives must be at least 50% locally owned. Often local energy cooperatives are set up for this purpose that take on this part of the ownership. The future profits can be reinvested in the area through these cooperatives over time. This means that some of the benefits remain in the area. It should be noted that the development risk also sits with the energy cooperative. Not every project makes it to the finish line. Sometimes a project turns out not to be feasible from a financial technical point of view, but more often a project fails due to political and administrative inconvenience. In that case, the costs incurred up to that point cannot be recouped and the cooperative suffers a loss.
Developers of sustainable energy projects also want to make a financial contribution to the environment. It is now common for the development of sustainable energy to be accompanied by payments to an environmental fund. In addition, municipalities can make agreements with the initiator via an anterior agreement about financial contributions to area development or quality improvements in the area. Here, the business case will determine the amount of an acceptable contribution.
Profits and subsidies
Energy projects are often presented as a cash cow or very lucrative. Often, the incentive contribution that the state provides to a project is framed as receiving subsidies and it is stated that the profit margins on the projects are very high. How does this work?
For sustainable energy projects on land, it is still necessary in most cases to use subsidy to achieve a financially viable project. This subsidy is included in the so-called SDE scheme in the form of an operating subsidy (compensation per KWh generated) for such projects. This subsidy is based on the difference between the basic amount (cost price for the electricity produced from wind energy) and the so-called correction amount (average market price for electricity produced from wind energy on the wholesale market). This contribution can therefore fluctuate annually on the basis of fluctuations in the electricity price; a high electricity price means a lower subsidy contribution and vice versa. The subsidy amount per kWh for electricity generated from solar is higher than the subsidy amount per kWh for electricity generated from wind. Solar energy projects therefore receive relatively more subsidy than wind energy projects.
To be able to claim the subsidy, the initiator must be in possession of a final Environmental Permit. An energy yield report, transmission indication from the grid operator, permission from the land owner and a complete feasibility study with exploitation calculation, including substantiation of at least the equity capital for the investment must all be submitted. Note: before even 1 cent of subsidy has been paid out, considerable costs (hundreds of thousands) have already been incurred. If the SDE subsidy is awarded, the initiator has a maximum of 4 years to build the wind energy project and put it into operation. After that, the right to payment expires.
The SDE subsidy for renewable energy (compensation per generated KWh) is decreasing and is expected to disappear completely within a few years.
The financial returns of operational sustainable energy projects are relatively high. A developer / initiator needs this buffer to be able to pay the costs of the projects that do not make it to the finish line.
New studies, new economics and cool new professions
The energy transition requires many and sometimes new professionals: renewable energy specialists, designers, environment managers, constructors, fitters, installers, maintenance specialists, and so on. MBO and HBO trainers and universities offer new courses and studies and are looking for enthusiastic people who want to contribute as a professional in the near future to making energy production more sustainable. The number of jobs in the solar and wind energy sector has been increasing for years. Many local companies are also involved in this and thus contribute to the local economy. When constructing solar and wind farms, local companies are often deliberately offered the opportunity to carry out work. In this way, the park provides employment for the region.
Wind turbines, becoming more and more unnoticed
It will probably be because I work in the renewable energy sector, but I notice that wind turbines are increasingly appearing in the normal streetscape and that news reports, films, TV series and advertising (which aren’t even about wind turbines) are increasingly showing wind turbines in the background. And now that you know this, you’ll notice it too!
The following fantastic photo, taken by drone pilot Ricado Manno from Gorinchem, illustrates one of cool new professions (wind turbine mechanic). Ricardo: “I drove past a wind farm with my best friend Jurriën Ames on Sunday and then we thought about how special it would be to use the drone to show how those things are made.”
On Instagram I follow a photographer who is interested in the construction of wind farms. Here too, I scroll through beautiful photos of the men and women who work on wind farms. I can already see a cool men’s and women’s calendar with the theme of wind energy selling like hot cakes.
The reason for the blog is the publication of the series “Energy of the future”. There have been many reactions to it. Apparently I am not the only one who felt the need for more nuance. The importance of a fair chance for the energy transition is too great! What makes me say the word ‘fair’…?
In my opinion, journalists are too often tempted to fill newspapers with provocative headlines and a one-sided or limited view of the complicated energy transition. It is possible that even one’s own uncomfortable feeling during the energy transition plays a role in the tone of the article. Another concern is the fact that articles are often spiced up with photoshopped photos that do not always paint a true picture of reality. This worries me. People attach great importance to articles they read in the newspaper (“it’s in the paper so it must be true”) and at many council meetings I hear councillors question other councillors about articles that have appeared in the media. Underlying substantiated policy documents sometimes even get buried.
I call on everyone and especially journalists to do better on fact-finding, adversarial advancement and immersion! We all have a responsibility to work in an honest and responsible manner in dialogue with each other towards a fossil-free living environment. It is in everyone’s interest!