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Dr Christian Zuidema: ‘Paying attention to the local situation is crucial to energy transition’

22 January 2014

A transition to more sustainable energy will never be achieved if the local situation is not taken into account, says spatial planning specialist Christian Zuidema from the University of Groningen. Although sustainable energy has implications for the landscape and makes demands on citizens, projects can also evolve via local initiatives. According to Zuidema, the government’s reluctance to take this into account is leading to substantial delays in the ongoing process of preserving energy supplies.

Christian Zuidema
Christian Zuidema

‘Traditional methods for supplying energy have few adverse effects on the landscape. The only real eyesores are electricity pylons in fields and the odd power plant. This changes dramatically when we generate sustainable energy from wind, the sun and biomass. Local residents are swift to object to the impact on the surroundings, causing numerous projects to be delayed or withdrawn altogether. The protests against large-scale wind farms in the peat districts are a good example.’

Government putting a spoke in its own wheels

‘You can’t increase sustainability without considering the spatial issue. The unwillingness of both national and local government to acknowledge this means that they are putting a spoke in their own wheels and failing to meet sustainability targets. If the government seriously wants to meet these targets, it must start paying more attention to the local situation. Not only by making sure that plans are more suitable, but also by making better use of local opportunities and ideas.’

Participation pays off

Zuidema and his colleague Jessica de Boer have looked closely at a number of projects over the past two years, including the plan for a wind farm in the peat districts of Drenthe and Groningen. ‘The residents had been sidelined and so opposition was a natural response. Nobody wanted those windmills in their back garden. Even a minority group of protesters is enough to thwart an entire plan.’

But things can be very different, explains Zuidema using an example from the Achterhoek region in the east of the Netherlands. Zuidema monitored a project set up by a group of farmers who decided to grow a crop for their own bio-fermenter on the infertile sandy soil. It gave them extra income, and they used the waste products to improve the structure of the soil and reduce the need for artificial fertilizers. In turn, this meant fewer chemicals washing into the drinking water area, so the waterworks decided to invest. The whole setup eventually qualified for government funding.

More say for supporters

According to Zuidema, the initiative in the Achterhoek is a prime example of how combining local interests and opportunities can improve a project’s chances of success and make it easier to generate support. The idea of allowing people to benefit may well help to realize more wind farms, says Zuidema. ‘Get people involved at an early stage and let them participate via shares, for example. Give the construction work to local contractors and let farmers earn some extra income by renting out land. It’s all about synergy. The five percent who oppose a plan often have the most sway, but encouraging this kind of involvement will give the supporters more say in the matter.’

Examples in Germany, Scotland and Denmark also show that people are more likely to back a local project if they are directly involved or stand to gain from it. Zuidema: ‘It suddenly becomes their bio-fermenter, their windmill or their rapeseed field. Allowing people to identify with a plan is a good way of generating support.’

Create room for local energy initiatives

Another way that the government could generate support is by creating more room for local energy initiatives, continues Zuidema. ‘Enterprising groups of farmers, entrepreneurs or residents face countless constraints. Entrepreneurs who want to cover the roof of their storage sheds with solar panels, for example, are forced to deliver the power they generate to the grid rather than to each other, as this would turn them into a decentralized network. Another problem is that the electricity network is unable to deal with fluctuations in energy consumption resulting from initiatives like this. This is one of the reasons that the price paid for electricity supplied to the grid has been set so low that it puts people off.’

Municipal authorities could also capitalize by placing solar panels at strategic locations, such as abandoned industrial estates. Zuidema: ‘It would be a good way for municipal authorities to reduce costs and meet compulsory sustainability targets. At the same time, it’s too easy to lay the entire blame for the failure of sustainable energy projects at the government’s feet. A lot of regulations and legislation were put in place with the best intentions. It’s a learning process for the government too.’

Added value

Decentralized initiatives will never be able to meet all our energy requirements, says Zuidema. ‘They generate plenty of megawatts, but the real value is in the social or economic benefits. People become more aware of their energy consumption and in economic terms, energy forms a promising growth market for local and regional industry. National government really must stop overestimating the importance of large-scale initiatives and agreements with major market players.’

Christian Zuidema is Assistant Professor of Spatial Planning at the University of Groningen

Last modified:15 September 2017 3.10 p.m.
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