Dutch have a simple answer to energy crisis – working together
WHILE tens of thousands of politicians and activists gathered hopefully in Copenhagen last Friday, a minor success was scored by eight men in wellingtons, standing on a barge beside the Afsluitdijk – the dyke that stops the North Sea from flooding the Netherlands.
The focus of attention was a small, two-bladed tidal Tocardo turbine which has been spinning in one of the sluice channels between the freshwater IJsselmeer and the saltwater North Sea for the past 18 months.
A sensor in the turbine was dislodged during repairs to the sluice gates, and watching the massive effort needed to reconnect that single wire, the extra costs associated with marine energy became crystal clear.
But, strange to relate, the final success of Copenhagen could rest heavily on this tiny sputnik of a machine.
The Tocardo will be one of the technologies deployed in an ambitious plan to reverse global warming, fossil-fuel dependency and colossal power company profits if Hans van Breugel and Fred Gardner have their way.
A farmer and an engineer, these two Dutchmen have been building on the expertise that's kept the Netherlands above sea level for seven hundred years with new marine energy devices. Now they are building on the human interdependency that life below sea level has encouraged. The co-operative spirit is in with the bricks in the Netherlands – or rather in with the dykes. If one farmer builds a sea-wall, he's still vulnerable to flooding if his neighbour does not.
So from the year 1300, the Dutch set up polders – local groups for discussion and joint action. The "natural" co-operation encouraged is seen at its best on the narrow streets of Amsterdam, where bicycles have primacy and any motorist involved in an accident with a bike will be presumed to have caused it.
And now northern Holland is ready to move from using bikes to saving the planet via a community energy company, which could be the only way countries can actually reach the targets (not) being set at Copenhagen.
Fred Gardner's idea is simple. So simple that intelligent Scots will try to find a snag, instead of trying to follow suit. He found that around a quarter of the unit price of energy is pure profit.
Profit currently handed to shareholders of the big power companies.
And since some of those power companies are government-owned (along with the grid network), that's a straightforward steal – taking cash from the public in the form of hiked-up energy prices to give to private shareholders.
Try another model. Suppose that same amount of profit was used in a different way – to finance renewable energy projects – then the shift from carbon to sustainable energy societies could begin immediately and the target of 50 per cent renewable energy by 2030 could be realised. But if that quarter of the energy price continues to be "lost" as shareholder profit, where will conventional power companies find the extra cash to invest in alternative power? More importantly perhaps, why would they bother? With billions sunk in oil, coal and gas technologies and power stations, do any of the existing energy players really want to make a massive switch now?
Teamworks' analysis suggests that by 2022 the cost of fossil-fuel energy per unit will exceed the cost of large-scale renewable energy for the first time. After that, everyone left with coal, gas and oil will be paying relatively more.
But for renewable costs to decline, its devices and technology need to be used and refined, and used more and refined more, until they are cost-effective and can be deployed at an industrial scale – just like every other piece of kit from VCRs, computers and microchips. That just won't happen with an impatient click of the fingers when recession ends, consumption rises and peak oil become the talk of the Steamie once again.
Fred Gardner's belief is that private capital is ready to line up behind renewable projects, but "slow money" investors need to believe there will be a market for the energy. People are ready to back renewable-only energy supplies, but they need to believe the lights won't go out. And politicians are ready to commit (with no oil or coal jobs in North Holland, they have only green jobs to gain), but they're worried the public won't buy in, and will resent becoming shareholders without getting a return. In other words, each party is on board if the others are. And those human dynamics – belief, trust, working together across organisational divides – are the only real snags in the community energy scheme.
There is nothing new on the Earth. The only new thing is truly working together. Without genuine joint working that goes way beyond the slogans, suspicion, ignorance and Nimbyism kick in at every stage of development.
Teamworks have the backing of 18 local municipalities to deliver an ambitious plan – to convert North Holland to locally generated renewable energy delivered by a community-owned energy company. Once 5,000 consumers have signed up, the scheme can supply 50 per cent renewable energy to those customers from next spring using existing capacity from a local incinerator.
The system can then cope with an extra 5,000 members a year (each paying 35 to join), which will supply some seed capital to build new wind, solar and marine capacity and attract far greater levels of private investment. The community company will keep growing until it is serving 100,000 customers with 100 per cent locally produced renewable energy in 2030. And the members must choose the plan that will get them there. Using mostly wind power, they will lose 6 per cent of local land. Using only solar, they will lose 2 per cent. A mix will need an area somewhere in between. The options are there – the people and the planners will have to decide and then stick to their guns.
It's a big ask in the world's most densely populated nation. But the bigger ask is what alternative radical delivery plan our politicians have.
I suspect the answer is none.
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Wednesday 19 June 2013
Temperature: 9 C to 18 C
Wind Speed: 16 mph
Wind direction: West
Temperature: 12 C to 20 C
Wind Speed: 8 mph
Wind direction: East