The use of renewable energy from solar and wind power is attracting immense interest – abroad, that is. Although the Netherlands was once a leading player in the field of renewable energy, the country is now mainly involved on a small scale, says Kees Hummelen, one of the inventors of the plastic solar cell and Professor of Chemistry at the University of Groningen. ‘If we continue down this road, we will largely miss the market boat for the most interesting sources of renewable energy.’
In 1995, Kees Hummelen developed the chemical components of the very first plastic solar cell. At the time, developing renewable energy in the Netherlands was surprisingly easy. The then social-liberal government awarded subsidies to any research that would benefit the economy, ecology and technology (EET). ‘Naturally, renewable energy satisfied these criteria, so obtaining funding for our research was easy’, says Hummelen. ‘Thanks to the subsidies, the Netherlands played a leading role in the research on solar power. Together with several colleagues at home and abroad we made several significant steps forward, which was great.’
The Dutch lead declined quickly after 2003, for which Hummelen principally blames the government. ‘The EET subsidies were abolished when Herman Heinsbroek became the Minister for Economic Affairs,’ says Hummelen, who describes the former minister as ‘a simpleton’. As a consequence, funds largely dried up and the Dutch government and business sector lost much of their interest in solar power.
Hummelen considers this lack of interest among politicians and the business sector a particularly aggravating way of thinking. ‘You still find plenty of Dutch politicians and decision-makers in The Hague asking outmoded questions like “Is there enough sun in the Netherlands?”, or uttering statements like “It’s always raining here”, and “Solar cells are still too expensive”.’ According to Hummelen, this mentality is typical. ‘The same thing happened in the discussion on wind power. People reacted by exclaiming “Not in my backyard”. In the meantime, the United Kingdom surpassed us in the field of wind power, even though the British were always the ones who were considered backward because of their reliance on coal. Just imagine!’
Even more significant is the way in which Germany has caught up with the Netherlands. ‘The number of solar cells in countries like Germany is growing at an unbelievable pace,’ says Hummelen. ‘The solar energy collected by Germany now amounts to 3.8 Gigawatt, which is 82% of the total European capacity. This has been made possible by substantial German subsidies. They cost a huge amount of money, but they have given the Germans a distinct edge in the development of solar power, which they will ultimately be able to capitalize on.’
Hummelen considers it inevitable that the production of solar cells will become commercially viable in the future. ‘If the current annual growth of fifty percent continues, the market for solar energy will be enormous in twenty years time.’ By then, manufacturers of solar panels will be making immense profits. Looking at the current prospects, Hummelen does not expect the Netherlands to be among those manufacturers. ‘We will have to buy these panels from others. That would be a shame, given the amount of knowledge available in this country.’
Hummelen hopes there is still time to catch up. ‘We need a new industriousness in this country, preferably created by new start-ups,’ he says. Hummelen himself founded the company Solenne, which manufactures components for plastic solar cells. ‘Still, we should be doing more than just building components. The greatest profits can be earned with finished products, like functioning solar panels. The production of solar panels in the Netherlands is, however, miniscule compared to the rest of the world.’ This is the reason why Hummelen is appealing to entrepreneurs and scientists to start work now. ‘I believe it can still be done. If you are serious about the idea, you should assemble a group of good people, attract a lot of capital and start working in earnest.’
Kees Hummelen (1954) studied organic chemistry and gained his PhD at the University of Groningen in 1985. He worked on the development of a potentially cheap plastic solar cell. He was appointed University Reader at the University of Groningen in 1998 and full Professor in the Chemistry of Molecular and Biomolecular Materials and Devices in 2000.
Prof. dr. J.C. Hummelen, tel. (050) 363 5553 (work), email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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