Will the Netherlands be off coal entirely by 2030?
On Thursday afternoon, October 6th, the Eindhoven Institute for Renewable Energy Systems (EIRES) held EnergyDays, a biennial event at which speakers from a range of perspectives discuss energy. ‘Decision-making in times of climate change’ was the theme of this year's event. With two academics, a rising talent, a politician and someone from the service sector, all the angles were covered. “We are moving toward a fully decarbonized system in 2030, but this has major consequences for the flexibility of the power grid.” Alternatives to power stations still need to be found because the power grid must be in balance at all times.
The event could count on a full house in the Zwarte Doos. Professor Heleen de Coninck, an IPCC report team member, opened the meeting and led the discussions although she herself did not deliver a lecture. Professor Linda Steg of the University of Groningen kicked off with research results in the field of influencing behavior: how can we ensure that people take action to protect the climate? She started by mentioning an interesting research finding: these days climate change is denied by relatively few people, she said. But the small group that does often has a louder presence and receives a relatively large amount of attention. This is due in part to the media, which is keen to present all the views held on a subject.
Steg has also done research into how people can be induced to take action. By way of example, she mentioned an experiment involving an advert for the correct setting and maintenance of tire pressure. On the screen she showed three conditions: the argument that it is better for the environment, the argument that it is better for your wallet, and a control condition without a specific argument. She asked the audience for input: which condition triggers the greatest number of people to jump to it and get their tire pressure set correctly? A sizeable majority thought it would be appealing to our wallets. Wrong. The environmental argument proved much more effective. In fact, the wallet argument came in last. “We have seen the same effect in energy-saving campaigns. Why is this? Because we know we like doing something that is important and meaningful. And this feelgood factor is greater when people act voluntarily.”
Steg also exploded a misconception: “It isn't true that you'll only do something for the climate once your basic needs are met. We found evidence from a study in Mexico that poor people care more about the environment than rich people. But a more important consideration is that developing countries have a much lower impact on the climate because they consume much less than rich countries.”
Light in the darkness
Maarten Abbenhuis, COO at grid operator TenneT, outlined the challenges involved in balancing power supply and demand as a grid operator. Whereas he assumed his audience was well aware of this, it may be news to some of our readers: a power network should always be in balance. Demand must equal supply. And that is a challenge when new natural energy sources like wind and solar are involved. These sources don't generate a constant amount of power and we have no control over them. Nor can we control people's energy consumption. Storage batteries could help but are expensive, still in development, and have to be connected to the network. A network that is already at full capacity in a country that has precious little spare land. Despite all this, Abbenhuis is looking to the future with confidence. “The lights will still be on as winter starts.” He's 99.9% sure of that. “There are no guarantees, but our plans have a big enough margin that if two nuclear power plants in France were to fail at the same time, we'd still be okay.” (Europe's power grid is interconnected, ed.)
Diversity in power essential
Balancing the grid is about more than just supply and demand. “It's also about making it sustainable, affordable and reliable,” Abbenhuis knows. “Here in the Netherlands we have a very reliable network with a high degree of delivery certainty. But the price is now so high that affordability is under threat. We need more electricity infrastructure to cater for the use of power at the right times and places.” A range of questions came from the audience about the use of batteries to keep the grid balanced. “There's nothing wrong with using big batteries provided we can connect them to the grid.” Someone suggested we use car batteries as a grid battery. After all, so many people already have them. “Yes, that's a good idea and one that we'll see develop,” Abbenhuis thinks. “We've already conducted a very successful pilot with 150 Teslas. This is something we want to expand.”
“We are moving toward a fully decarbonized system in 2030,” says Abbenhuis. “But once we've arrived there, we won't be able to count on traditional power stations to give us the flexibility we need in the system. We need alternatives for the generators, but that takes time.” A question came from the audience: “In that future is there still scope for nuclear power?” Abbenhuis was clear on this point: “We already have one nuclear power plant and I'm happy with that. But I'm not going to discriminate against any form of power. If the government chooses nuclear power, as a grid operator we are required to connect up the power plant and deliver the power. We often hear it said that nuclear energy is so much easier to use. That's not the case. We can see from the charging curves that it's highly dynamic and that means it's not ideal for the grid balance. I don't believe in being dependent on a single type of power. The strength of the Dutch system lies in the fact that we have gas, coal, nuclear power, wind power, biomass and solar energy.”
2030 is too late
Lisa van der Geer, acquisition manager at the Jonge Klimaatbeweging (Youth Climate Movement) and a bachelor's student of Chemistry, came to speak from the perspective of young people, “the group that more than any other will have to deal with the consequences of the climate change caused by adults. “Climate change is a choice, and it's a poor choice. The solutions are not clear.” Despite this, Van der Geer hopes that with her studies and her role in the Youth Climate Movement she can contribute in her own way and can involve everyone in protecting the climate. “And I mean everyone, not just rich lefties.” For this to happen, she believes, climate policy must be presented more simply, because a lot of people no longer understand what's wanted of them. The Youth Climate Movement has made its own effort to do this and offered its plan to Minister Jetten. But making plans is not top of Van der Geer's agenda. What she really wants is action. Now. “It's not something politicians like to hear, they prefer to write plans to avoid getting their hands dirty. And so their plan is for 2030. That's too late.”
Van der Geer is also clear about the science: “Heleen has done fantastic things with the research, but we don't need too many Heleens either. We need to get to work. So how? It's simple,” she says. “You need to ditch the idea that you can spend your euro only once. If you study hard in math, your won't just see your math grades improve. Your physics and chemistry grades will rise too. You'll have less stress, you'll sleep better, etc, etc. Everything is connected. Likewise, when you work to improve the climate, you'll see multiple effects. Eating less meat, for example, is good for your health and for animals and the climate. It's better to take a small step today than a gigantic one in 2050.” This young woman received enthusiastic applause.
Anne-Marie Spierings, deputy in the provincial executive for North Brabant with portfolio responsibility for energy, the circular economy and the environment, was the final speaker: “They always put me after someone who has harsh words to say about politics,” she said with a wry smile about Van der Geer's speech. “The province's aims for 2030 and 2040 are far off, I admit that to the speaker before me. So how can I make the right decisions today? I hope to use the knowledge we have now to do what's best. But before we do anything, we must think.”
Spierings gave examples that further illuminated her view: “We want to see an end to coal-fired power stations and biomass. But we're in a lock-in.” By this she meant we have created a trap for ourselves and are dependent on a particular way of generating heat. “We always used to have plenty of power available and didn't do anything to insulate homes; there was no need. But now we need new energy sources, we need more power than we have and it has become more expensive. Now I'm thinking, if only we had insulated our homes better. We created a problem. That's why it's so important to think ahead and to prevent lock-in situations like this, because they are difficult to change.”
At the same time, she recognizes that it's also important to make headway. “Many charging stations for electric cars are only a couple of years old but are already out of date. But if we hadn't built those charging stations, we'd never have come this far in the transition to electric driving. I wouldn't call this a lock-in but an investment that we had to make to get to where we are now. It's about finding the right balance.”
At the end De Coninck had another statement that prompted considerable discussion: “Can we still turn around the climate change without jeopardizing economic development?” An audience member got to his feet and spoke: “Economic development shouldn't be an indicator. Economic development, or rather growth, got us into this situation.” He earned strong applause. The speakers responded briefly. Van der Geer: “But some people do believe economic development is relevant and we live in a democracy so we have to listen to them. If we're going to change anything, we need a country that supports the policy. Spierings agreed with her: “I couldn't have put it better.” Abbenhuis added that he thought the future of renewables promises interesting jobs and opportunities for academics. De Coninck concluded: “Sometimes the short and the long term are in conflict. This winter we'll be using power stations to avoid sitting in the dark, although we know they won't be having a positive impact on the future.”