The big transition

From fossil battery to clean, local sources

May 22, 2017

Where are we going to get our energy from as the gas taps are closed off more and more? And what does this transition mean for Heijmans as a home builder? We ask Teun Bokhoven, Chairman of the Nederlandse Vereniging Duurzame Energie (‘Netherlands Sustainable Energy Association’, or NVDE), and Ronalt Folbert, Commercial Manager at Heijmans.

There is no better location for a chat about energy transition than Teun Bokhoven’s home. In conjunction with an architect, the Chairman of the NVDE (and former building contractor) built his energy-neutral home himself, atop the IJsseldijk at Moordrecht. His roof pretty much consists entirely of solar panels and the house is heated by a geothermal storage unit.

If sea levels rise in future, this will directly affect Teun. “The water here hasn’t quite reached the threshold.” For that reason alone he is already devoting himself to fostering an energy-neutral built environment. As Chairman of the NVDE and one of the negotiators of the Energy Agreement signed at the SER (Sociaal-Economische Raad, the Social and Economic Council), Teun is keen to generate support among citizens, in government and the business community, to bring these parties together and initiate concrete projects and actions.

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Teun Bokhoven built his home energy-neutral.

Teun utilizes his knowledge and talent for diplomacy when engaging with authorities at all levels of scale. “We’re striving to get legislation and regulations adapted such that the transition to a sustainable energy system can be expedited and the business world will be given greater room and opportunities to capitalize on this. Hence I’m keen to transform the sustainability drive into economic structures.”

Ronalt Folbert is one of the proponents of modernization at Heijmans. He finds markets for sustainable innovations, such as bicycle security system BikeScout and SONOB, a noise barrier fitted with solar panels. Ronalt: “My personal mission? To see to it that I leave in a better position than when I arrived. Energy systems, water, circularity and climate adaptation have been my areas of interest for a long time now.”

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Both gentlemen applaud the fact that the climate is an important topic in the negotiations between the potential new government parties. Ronalt: “Sustainability is not a leftist policy!” “Making things sustainable is good for business and, therefore, good for the VVD as well”, says Teun.

Sustainability and the revenue model

Teun and Ronalt may well share the same vision of the future, but Ronalt has to ensure that the sustainable innovations generate revenue. “I’m always looking for a solid business case. Which is challenging when it comes to innovations. Are they needed? And is there sufficient room in the market to investigate whether or not the innovation is living up to our promises? You need time to guarantee reliability and availability. We're a business-to-business company and so we can only do this in projects. In turn, extra investments are required to that end. And that's something that construction firms need to do cautiously at present.”

"Sustainability is not a leftist policy. Making things sustainable is good for business”

Teun believes that Heijmans is definitely among the more innovative construction firms. Ronalt: “Innovation is in our blood. And everyone wants to cooperate on the energy transition. But how do we start? Things are unruly in practice, however much legislation and regulations are promoting sustainability. In the absence of the right infrastructure, things are limited to minor initiatives and the bigger steps are difficult to progress. Public interest calls for a party that will make the first move.” 

A chicken-and-egg debate

It is a chicken-and-egg debate: who has to make the first move? Should it be the government? Or is the construction sector passing the buck to the State a little too often? “As a builder, I don't yet see us taking the lead”, says Ronalt. “Which I personally think is a shame, albeit understandable within the compass of the risks and uncertainty regarding returns. What can we do? Unite! We can encourage our customers to choose a sustainable solution. This does mean that they will have to accept a longer return on investment period. There’s not currently any direct profit on sustainable solutions.”

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Ronalt Folbert, Commercial Manager at Heijmans.

The crux of Teun’s role within this chicken-and-egg debate is to draw attention to the positive examples, of which there are plenty now, and in which companies will find a positive business case. After all, he is keen to unite market and government so as to enable the development of a powerful new economic force. “There are regulations and there’s money to support sustainable initiatives, to do away with this unprofitable top of certain investments. And that's necessary as well, to be able to scale up innovations.”

Back to the original sources

Raising the bar: the changing energy market. Ronalt comments on how nice it is that we are now reverting to the primary energy sources: water and solar. “Fossil fuels were a later switch. In fact, it’s crazy that returning to natural sources is now costing money. We’ve been using fossil energy as a battery for a very long time now.”

Teun: “Actually it's just a brief spike. These energy sources developed over four billion years and we burned them in a hundred. Now we’re going back to a more natural equilibrium.” The major challenge is the growth of the world’s population, they both think. Teun: “A hundred years ago the world population was at the one billion mark; we’ll soon be hitting ten billion. And everyone wants the same level of luxury and comfort. The challenge is how to effect this transition without losing our current lifestyle.”

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Teun Bokhoven, Chairman of the Nederlandse Vereniging Duurzame Energie

Ronalt believes we have come a long way. He sees that reducing meat consumption is a problem for fewer and fewer people. “Younger generations have an entirely different outlook on this”, he acknowledges. “Actually, my children are educating me. At school they’re already learning a different diet now: less sugar, for instance, as well as less meat. We used to always eat fish on Fridays. Why do we think that having meat on your plate every day is so normal? My son constantly asking me ‘why’ questions is triggering me. I’m wondering more often why I consider this normal. And a lot more people ought to do that.”

"My children are educating me. Why do I think that eating meat every day is normal?"

Nobody wants to make sacrifices, but both Teun and Ronalt believe that we can make our environment circular without losing out on the comfort factor. Ronalt: “Rather than ‘more, more’ it needs to be about ‘better, better’. Make better use of what you’ve already got: reuse the heat that’s already in your house instead of just emitting it. Make optimum use of the technical possibilities that exist, such as a shower with hot water recovery system. Heijmans is already using these.”

Teun adds: “The best argument is to steer things in terms of stable, low cost of living, with future energy bills being considered in tandem with the rent or mortgage payments: ensure that the homebuyer is clear on what he’ll have left in his wallet. In such circumstances, why would you not opt for a future-proof property? Sustainable is the new standard and is already markedly cheaper in the case of new-build properties, if you look at it from the perspective of cost of living!”

The neighbour’s energy

Nevertheless, large-scale interventions that expedite the sustainability drive, such as solar fields or wind farms, meet with a great deal of resistance in society. Unsurprisingly they take up a lot of space, the two echo each other, and this is something we will also have to get used to. Consequently, Ronalt sees more prospects for solar power, because solar panels are easy to use in or on existing buildings. “On the proviso that we tackle it intelligently!”

Teun takes a positive view of this, however: “There was opposition to windmills in the 17th century too, and look at where we are now with that. I always appeal to the urgency to act now. Innovation will give rise to an increasing number of new technologies.”

Fossil energy has always been centrally reinforced, and in future things will be dependent on decentralized generation and distribution, says Teun. “What we’ll eventually see is small sustainable power stations popping up everywhere, for each district or even for each residential block. Meaning you’ll be using local energy, perhaps even the heat and electricity generated by your neighbour!”

Every consumer is becoming a producer as well? Ronalt concurs: “In fact, from a technical perspective the individual house can already be built like a small power station.”

It is precisely on this point that Teun sees considerable opportunities for the construction industry. “These changes call for new parties in the energy market. This could be the builder, as he has a great deal of know-how in-house. They build the house, supply the solar panels and facilitate the infrastructure for the energy distribution. As a builder, get away from that tradition of building what the customer wants for low margins. Flip values around and create new things.”

Leonardo di Caprio's documentary Before the flood
Leonardo di Caprio's documentary Before the flood
Leonardo di Caprio's documentary Before the flood

Will this render the building contractor a service company? Teun: “Yes, this can be the case alongside or instead of your current activities. It’s down to Heijmans to decide whether or not this suits them.” Ronalt can certainly see the benefits: “If you dedicate yourself to management and maintenance, then you’ll have a direct relationship with the consumer, which will also be a longer-term, durable customer relationship.”

Building contractor as energy manager or service provider?

A major revolution, from B2B to B2C. Does the construction industry really have the requisite marketing skills? And aren’t small and medium-sized businesses more suited to this? Teun: “The major construction firms can learn a lot from the SMEs’ approach to consumers, and supplement that with the potential of large companies.” He sees that a construction firm such as Heijmans could develop itself to become a ‘system integrator’ – a player with the knowledge, expertise and clout to unify technology and society’s aspirations to form integrated solutions.

Deltaplan Energy for cultural change

The discussion returns to who is responsible for what within the sustainability drive. Teun thinks that a construction firm like Heijmans ought to take a vanguard position in cultural change. “Provide clear focus, stand up for your ambitions, make deliberate choices. After all, you don’t just want to be that construction firm building what the customer requests, do you? It’s precisely through new propositions that you can unlock new opportunities.”

"After all, you don’t just want to be that construction firm building what the customer requests, do you?"

Then Ronalt identifies a couple of challenges with which he is faced. “Although major clients such as Rijkswaterstaat and the district water boards understand this already, there is barely any room for fulfilling sustainable ambitions in the tendering procedures of lower-level authorities. Accept the lowest bid, is the motto there. The vexed question - the costs of the sustainability drive - is often skirted round in the discussions.”

Like many other energy experts, he sees a role for central government in this, which could supply the requisite funds through a ‘Deltaplan Energy’. “To effect cultural change it’s necessary to reward solutions that expedite the energy transition. Heijmans is standing for those ambitions; we’re working our socks off to shape those contours of tomorrow. There’s no shortage of roadmaps for the solutions of the future.”

Spoilt by the big gas battery

Teun concurs: “Due to the current method of financing and encouraging sustainable energy, we are showing our most economical side. The reverse of the Dutch East India Company mentality.” And we are also spoilt by the significant natural gas reserves in the past, they find.

Ronalt concludes that fortunately there are still more clients cropping up who are up for the adventure, such as corporation Woonbedrijf in Eindhoven, where Heijmans used the most innovative sustainable technologies in the renovation of the Genderdal district.

"It’s precisely through new propositions that you can unlock new opportunities"

In order to continue pushing the modernization forwards, Heijmans looks for an enthusiastic partner for each challenge, such as AERSpire in Genderdal or Solar Energy Application Center (SEAC) for the SONOB noise barrier. “Heijmans also looks for partners keen to join us as we go off the beaten track - early adaptors. Parties with whom we can connect in terms of shared interests. After all, the energy transition is a mammoth task, which we will only be capable of taking on together rather than alone.”