‘From an old-fashioned government that follows to a government that innovates’

15-02-2019

Interview with Nienke Homan, councillor in the province of Groningen

Nienke Homan is a Green/Left councillor on the Provincial Executive of the province of Groningen. Her responsibilities include the environment, energy, and energy transition. She was also recently elected to head her party’s list for the coming elections to the Provincial Council. Time to talk about climate policy, overcoming resistance, other practical problems and the benefits and drawbacks of polders.

(Balanina Photography)

(Balanina Photography)

There has recently been some controversy surrounding the development of solar parks in the north of the Netherlands. Experts have long known that our electricity network has insufficient capacity to carry all these new electrons. The investment needed to resolve this problem is extremely high, and it takes years for permission to be granted. Wouldn’t it be better to deal with this problem on a national scale?

The issue is to regulate matters well both locally and nationally. At a national level, network firms such as Tennet and Enexis need to be given more freedom to plan ahead and come up with new solutions. They need to do that so that they can answer questions like where do we need heat, where do we need power, how can we deal with the storage of sustainable energy? This is not yet happening enough.

At a local level we need to ensure that sustainable generation of energy with solar arrays and wind turbines are experienced as something positive. This means taking account as much as possible of local wishes. In the past, you tended not to think straightaway of connection to the grid, but more of how it fitted into the landscape and about ownership. Now people are frustrated if ‘their’ solar array cannot be connected. To resolve this, we as governments and network firms must make innovative plans and work together in new ways. Rather than pointing at each other it is very important that one group takes the lead. We as a province can contribute to this with the Regional Energy Strategy.

Isn’t that true for all groups, that they cannot take the lead? Don’t we need national authority to take charge of coordination, and that can also force decisions to be carried out?

First and foremost you have to want to get along with each other. The need is very high at the moment. But a form of central direction is also necessary, and I think that must be the responsibility of the State.

The issue is to regulate matters well both locally and nationally

You have said from time to time that gas, hydrogen, can help us resolve the storage problem. A lot is said about this. Isn’t it now time for a large-scale approach?

We are facing exactly the same problem here as the one we were just discussing. The State says: we mustn’t put generate too much offshore wind energy, because there are not enough firms taking it. The firms in turn say that they can’t start because there is not enough green electricity. You have to break through this by adopting a planned approach to supply and demand. Only then can we take the next step. There is certainly a role for governments here.

Isn’t that symptomatic? A lot happens in business, but the government often fails to react.

As a government we tend to be followers, and so somewhat old-fashioned, in many areas, especially innovation. You can see that great strides are now being made in the energy transition: not linear, but in leaps. This is of course wonderful but does require a different, more creative approach.

I’d like to come back to hydrogen for a moment. In principle, it can be grey or green. What are your views on the intermediate form, blue hydrogen, which is CO2-neutral thanks to CCS but is made from natural gas.

We are facing real choices, and so directly encourage the move towards green hydrogen. We see that this is possible with large amounts of offshore wind and electrolysers in our ports. Because of gas extraction we are not in favour of the underground storage of CO2, but we are working on a pilot scheme to store green hydrogen in caves. After all, we can only spend our money once, so we would prefer to spend it on green hydrogen.

Is the subsidy instrument the only thing that the province has?

No, we have other options. Planning, the issuing of permits and of course our role in implementing the Climate Accord. The use of other, non-fossil raw materials such as hydrogen and biomass really are the future. And of course closing the chain of those raw materials, i.e. using each other’s residual products and products from the environment. This is what we are working on, think of ChemPort and the plans of the Northern Industrial Board.

Doing nothing is not an option.

We can now describe offshore wind as a success story, but that is not true for onshore wind. Resistance is very high in some places. Does it still really make sense to press on with this in view of all the negative effects? Does the end justify the means?

The way we approached this in the past, simply designating an area, is no longer viable. People want more ownership and to get something out of it themselves, and rightly so. There are a lot of people who want to work on this seriously and who see local generation as an opportunity for a new model to share the benefits fairly. Unfortunately, the publicity is now dominated by groups that are radically opposed to onshore wind turbines, but that is a one-sided view. People understand that the task is enormous and that we really have to do something to counter climate change. Doing nothing is therefore not an option.

Aren’t we over-estimating support? Society has a lot more challenges to face than climate change.

I think that we talk far too much in terms of visions and plans. For most people this is too abstract and feels like it has nothing to do with them. So I also believe that we need to get initiatives and projects across to the general public as quickly as possible. And we need to raise concrete questions, like: “We want to start producing sustainable energy in your village, district, street. Where do you think would be the best place to do this?” That’s better than announcing a future sustainability policy. Then people expect it. So it is closer to them, and they can immediately start thinking about the benefits that sustainability brings and also consider what they want to do themselves.

The influence of the Netherlands on climate change is negligible. How do you ensure that the benefits of climate policy are in fact noticeable in the short term? For example, policies to improve air quality in town centres. The relationship between measures and results is clear to everyone here.

I also believe that results have to be visible. We want more green, fine, that can be regulated. People who want more green in their environment generally know where they want it. Everyone also wants to live in comfortable circumstances. That is easy to combine with sustainability measures. For instance, a green roof keeps a home warm in winter and cool in summer.

It costs (a lot of) money. Don’t we need more financial instruments and investors?

Money is not always the issue. The market is often more interested in longer-term security. You can offer this by being clear about where you are going, with a clear perspective and by making real choices. Then the investments come from the front runners themselves. Let’s make it clear that we regard CO2 emission as ‘not done’ and want to get back to zero: then innovations leading to this become much more interesting.

Back to climate policy. Aren’t the targets too absolute? If they are not achieved, won’t the people who worked towards them get frustrated, while others feel confirmed in their view that nothing has really been done.

You have to avoid new excuses coming up all the time to put things off. There needs to be a clear agenda. Look at solar panels. They have been on the market for private individuals for about thirty years, but sales only really started to take off once prices fell and returns increased. That was only possible because there was a sustainability agenda, offering producers long-term prospects. Only then were they willing to invest in research and development. In short, you need regulations to impose measures and set standards. Otherwise you are in a chicken-and-egg situation. Ten years ago there were already solar panels available with a return of around 30 per cent, but they weren’t selling, because the previous cheaper generation could still be bought. You can overcome this by prescribing a minimum return requirement. Setting a clear policy with specific targets is the government’s most important role.

People don’t like change. Is our democracy really suitable for the enormous upheaval that awaits us? The bill will be presented soon, at the next elections.

On that point I have faith in the self-correcting power of democracy. Polarisation is paralysing. Look at the current situation in Great Britain and the United States. Left or right and nothing in between, that doesn’t work. In that regard we can be proud of the Netherlands. Here at least we talk to each other.

You believe in polders.

Of course, but unfortunately there is also another side to this which I am not so proud of: the culture of settling scores. In the Netherlands, if you try something and it doesn’t work, you are immediately sidelined. Polders encourage caution and so undermine willingness to take risks. In business, it is accepted that innovation is a matter of trial and error. If we as the Netherlands want to progress, we have to be brave enough to experiment. It is always easier to explain why something is not possible than to think of something that might work. But the latter approach gives you much more energy.

Are there taboos when it comes to the energy transition, things that you think we must avoid?

Nuclear energy is not an option. I am not alone in thinking that. Our board does not want a nuclear power station under any circumstances. But on other issues we are quite pragmatic, for example we accept the need for CCS.

And offshore wind instead of onshore wind?

No, we need both.