A view of wind turbines in rows on grass and in a lake in Holland

Noordoostpolder

Following the World Hydrogen Summit in mid-May, I spent a couple of days a little further north in Noordoostpolder to try to gain a better understanding of renewable energy in the Netherlands’ rural areas.

My main focus was the Noordoostpolder Wind Park, a 429MW array of 86 turbines running along the bank and in the near-shore waters of the IJsselmeer. (Fun fact: As the IJsselmeer is a freshwater lake – as opposed to the ocean – the turbines are treated as if they are onshore from a regulatory perspective.) There are a few elements of this project which make it particularly interesting:

  • The surrounding countryside used to be home to a number of (often privately owned) turbines, resulting in a hodgepodge of structures across the area. This project sought to consolidate the wind development in a single part of the region, thus minimising the visual impact of wind energy generation.
  • The project sits within an umbrella company, but is in three separately-owned parts. The three owners are:
    • RWE – a German renewable energy companyNOP Agrowind – a company owned by a collective of local farmers
    • Westermeerwind – a company which allowed people, including local people, to buy shares in the wind farm
      • This ownership approach has allowed local people to have a literal sense of ownership over the project
  • The walking/cycle path along the IJsselmeer bank has remained open, so the public have access to the area next to the wind farm
  • There is a future plan to use the existing onshore corridor along the dike wall to install a long solar array – taking advantage of the fact that cabling and substations are already in place
  • The entire landmass was actually water a century ago. This has nothing to do with the renewables directly, but the Dutch capacity for large-scale engineering is really something to behold

Whilst the approach to the wind park is quite innovative, especially from an ownership perspective, even those involved in the process concede that it’s not perfect, and there have been some learnings:

  • The ownership structures have concentrated the local ownership component in a relatively small group of local farmers, rather than the broader community, despite the broader ability for members of the public to buy shares
  • Likewise, the siting of the onshore turbines – and nature of land ownership and parcel size in Noordoostpolder – has meant that some farmers host turbines, and receive relatively generous payments for this, whilst neighbours have missed out
    • The farmers hosting turbines are now – generalising massively – more financially secure than those without, and therefore also able to capitalise on new business opportunities or buy land when it becomes available more readily
  • There is a modest community benefits package which supports five of Noordoostpolder’s ten small villages with annual payments
    • The five villages further away, which miss out, felt this was unfair. The local government now provide payment to those five villages.
  • The nearby town of Urk which is not part of Noordoostpolder chose not to participate in the wind farm development process and now, despite its proximity, receives no financial benefit from the project – except for some small payments to the local fishing industry
  • The project has largely maxed out the existing local grid for feed-in of future solar, but there are also challenges for businesses to gain new electricity connections
    • At the same time that the Dutch government is encouraging people to move away from domestic gas use and towards electric heating, cooking, etc.

Noordoostpolder, and the province of Flevoland that it is part of is also some of the most productive farmland in the Netherlands – and there have been regulations made which have essentially capped the amount of wind power generation at its current level and strongly limited the land that could be utilised for solar. The protection of farmland from renewable energy uses is likely to grow following the recent Dutch elections.

The current electricity grid is also likely to limit any future development, as it is presently at capacity. A new high voltage interconnector from north of the country is expected to be built in the coming few years, but – as with many such projects – there are likely to be limited local benefits to hosting the infrastructure. The Local Government also shared with me though that plans are underway to augment the local electricity network – which should address some of the current bottlenecks.

From a business perspective, I spoke with Twan Harkvoort, the Chair of BV Noordoostpolder (the local Chamber of Commerce equivalent) and he shared a story that is increasingly common with regards to these projects:

  • During construction, there was a lot of regional economic activity as accommodation, trucking, catering and a whole raft of local businesses were called upon to service the construction workforce
  • During operations, there has been fairly minimal local business creation or impact, with the exception of an Enercon office locally which provides employment and training for the operations and maintenance team
  • The energy transition for local businesses means adoption of batteries and better use of technology to manage energy-intensive processes (like keeping fresh produce cool)
    • Ultimately though electrification will require good access to electricity, and despite the proximity to the wind farm, there’s not easy access to the energy it provides
  • Impacts on other industries, such as tourism, fishing and farming have been relatively minimal. Twan concedes that whilst there might have been concerns about the visual impacts of the project (in addition to the impacts on bats and birdlife), the visual amenity issues have faded as people have become used to the project
    • The project was required to adjust turbine siting and build an environmental offset area for the potentially impacted birds, particularly migratory species. At this stage I don’t have any real information about how effective those strategies have been
  • One of the biggest challenges has been the project swallowing up the grid capacity, which has meant that those wanting to build their own solar or wind for business use – particularly farmers, who have high energy needs for a couple of months each year for produce storage – are unable to feed back into the grid

The other interesting aside that Twan alerted me to is the Dutch Energy Saving Obligation – essentially a requirement for businesses using over 50,000kWh per year to invest in energy-saving measures. The Obligation comes with mandatory reporting requirements, and inspections to ensure compliance. In this environment full of policy sticks and carrots, this is an interesting stick to try to address the demand side of the energy mix.

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