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Renewable energy? In Holland, people power rules

The Dutch walk the talk with grassroots initiatives to reduce reliance on fossil fuel

Standing in front of a modern windmill soaring more than 100m into the sky, it is hard not to marvel at the wonder of it all.

The three giant blades rotate, catching the wind to convert into electricity, enough to power more than 2,000 homes.

What is there not to like about wind energy?

It is free, blows every day, there is no carbon emission to warm the earth, and you'll never run out of the stuff.

Why can't there be more of these propelling wonders to supply us with the energy we need?

The Netherlands does not have all the answers to the challenges posed by climate change. Indeed, German windmill technology is superior and the Chinese dominate in solar panels. But the Dutch excel in getting the community involved, working together to find solutions that work for them.

The question is blowing in the wind as I stand in a vast expanse of farmland on the island of Goeree-Overflakkee in the Netherlands where four of these are being built.

At that moment, Paris, where a climate change summit is taking place, seems like a dying planet away.

While the negotiators there attempt to save humanity from the catastrophic consequences of global warming, ordinary people here have found their own answers.

The project I am visiting is owned by DeltaWind, a cooperative of almost 2,000 local residents who have come together to invest in windmills.


The Dutch cooperative DeltaWind runs these windmills in Goeree- Overflakkee, Netherlands. It has almost 2,000 members who invest in wind power because they support renewable energy. - ST PHOTO: HAN FOOK KWANG

Ms Monique Sweep who runs the co-op tells me it is a grassroots initiative to protect the environment and raise awareness about renewable energy.

It is not a bad business either, paying 6 per cent dividend a year to its members.

Can I join? I asked. Yes, but I will have to be a resident here.

For the Dutch, it always has to be a community thing, as I am finding out in my week-long visit here at the invitation of its government to look at its clean energy projects.

  • Dutch lessons in flood protection

  • When sea levels rise as a result of climate change, it is a fair bet that the Netherlands would be the most prepared country in the world.

    With 3,700km of dikes protecting the coastline and riverbanks, and 2,000 years of flood protection history, it is also the most experienced.

    Here it has been a never-ending struggle to keep much of its land, which is below sea level, dry and usable.

    I visited two of their recent projects which highlight the new thinking that is shaping the way it fights this old battle.

    Now, it is no longer content with building ever higher walls to keep out the advancing waters.

    It doesn't want to just resist the water, but to use it.

    Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the city of Nijmegen through which the River Waal flows.

    I stood in a beautifully sited public space overlooking a channel of water that has been created to allow the Waal to flow into.

    As a result, a new island has been created in the middle of the river, opening up space for the city to expand.

    The project is aptly called Room for the River, but the new areas being created are as much for the city, which has gained living and recreational space.

    Costing €351 million (S$540 million), it is part of the country's €2.3-billion plan at 30 river locations to protect four million people in flood-prone areas.

    The Nijmegen project was originally conceived as a straightforward protection scheme.

    But the city authorities seized on the idea to turn it into an urban renewal project, and took charge of the development.

    The active participation by the local community is an important part of Dutch culture as I found out in another project I visited.

    Katwijk is a small seaside resort threatened by the occasional storm surges from the North Sea.

    But it is also part of a wider network of coastal defences protecting the economic centres of the Netherlands, including Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Schiphol airport.

    Like Nijmegen, it wasn't enough just to strengthen the dikes.

    Here the planners decided to use the beach itself, broadening the dunes into the sea and building the dikes below the sand.

    An underground carpark was constructed and there is now ample parking to take in the summer crowd.

    From where I stood on the beach, everything looked well-integrated and the ambience of an old town was preserved.

    What underpins this new Dutch thinking?

    I put the question to Mr Henk Ovink, who was recently appointed to the newly created position of Special Envoy for International Water Affairs.

    He said the new approach is not to view water in isolation but as part of the wider issue to do with developing a better community and creating living spaces.

    Singapore too is looking at how to protect the country from rising sea levels.

    His advice?

    Don't look at it as a separate problem but take all the water issues together: water supply, Newater, the occasional flooding in the city. View these issues together and you will arrive at a comprehensive, more sustainable solution.

    There is a wealth of Dutch experience behind the idea.

In the Netherlands, the people take matters into their own hands, and act on what they believe in.

Wind is nice, but wait till you hear about what they are trying to do with the sun.

The city of Utrecht wants to be carbon neutral by 2030 and to have at least 10 per cent of its needs met by renewable energy in five years' time. That's wind, sun and biogas, which is obtained from organic waste.

But it is solar panels we have come to see and the authorities tell us they plan to have 10 per cent of rooftops lined with these panels by 2020. (In contrast, less than 1 per cent of Singapore's electricity supply is from solar power).

Prices have dropped over the years and the estimate now is that the panels will pay for themselves in eight years - after which it's free electricity, more or less.

Not sure if your home is suitably sited for solar power?

There is a website showing all the houses in the city and how well placed each one is in relation to the sun.

I also meet Mr Sander Willemsen who runs a volunteer group called Energie-U, formed with the sole purpose of promoting and encouraging residents to install solar panels in their homes.

It offers advice on what panels to buy, how to install and maintain them, and is an outstanding example of Dutch grassroots in action.

In the province of Brabant, there is an even more ambitious plan to introduce zero energy houses - where electricity from renewable sources is enough to provide all the energy needs.

They are thinking big here - aiming to refurbish 800,000 homes by 2050.

That means solar panels, geothermal heating, biogas, special insulation, and whatever it takes to make these homes energy-efficient and non-dependent on fossil fuel.

To succeed on such a scale, the authorities pulled out all the stops: changing the laws, working with developers and financial institutions, changing the mortgage arrangements, etc.

The entire building industry in the province was persuaded to invest in the technology to build these zero-energy homes.

One official says this "nothing changes unless everything changes" approach is the only way to make a significant impact.

If only the leaders meeting in Paris had half the commitment, planet earth might be saved yet.

But for the mother of social activism in the Netherlands, meet Ms Marjan Minnesma of the action group Urgenda.

She has just returned from the Paris meeting, after walking all the way there (it's a symbolic thing, she says, to promote non-polluting transport) and has been making headlines in the country when Urgenda brought the Dutch government to court for not doing enough to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and won the case.

It was an audacious action, with huge implications for the government and businesses responsible for these emissions.

Not surprisingly, the government has appealed against the verdict and the case is now before the country's Supreme Court.

Why such an aggressive approach, I ask.

Her logic is a simple one:

Climate change will cause severe harm to the world's population and governments have both a moral and legal obligation to protect their citizens from danger.

If they do not, the people should be able to force them to do so through the courts.

Whether you agree with her or not, you have to admire the strength of her conviction.

The Netherlands does not have all the answers to the challenges posed by climate change.

Indeed, German windmill technology is superior and the Chinese dominate in solar panels.

But the Dutch excel in getting the community involved, working together to find solutions that work for them.

In contrast, in Singapore, the people expect the Government to do most of the running. It has invested in research on solar power and encouraged developers to build green buildings.

But the results have been unimpressive and the country is still almost wholly dependent on fossil fuel.

And the Singapore public is as yet unmoved and largely uninvolved.

Perhaps the Dutch are more keenly aware of the dangers caused by climate change.

A people living in waterlogged land, much of which is below sea level, had to think of all sorts of ingenious ways to keep the water out.

More important, they developed a strong communitarian culture which was necessary when the odds were so great.

That's how they built the most advanced dike protection system in the world, and it is the same approach they are taking to become less dependent on fossil fuel.

If more people elsewhere do likewise, there might be hope yet for planet earth.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 20, 2015, with the headline 'Renewable energy? In Holland, people power rules'. Print Edition | Subscribe