Nuance is the new radical

Energy transition does not benefit from extreme measures

May 22, 2017

The energy transition is one major changes facing us today. For that reason, independent energy researcher and publicist Remco de Boer is encouraging open dialogue on the challenges and opportunities. “This is a messy quest, littered with instances of good and bad fortune. There isn't a one-size-fits-all solution. So let a thousand flowers bloom!”

How can we expedite the process of rendering things more sustainable, and by what means? The debate to this end is characterized by sound bites and one-liners, put forward in a stentorian voice and in shrill tweets. A universal panacea has barely been discovered before once again being torn apart online by a ‘sustainability guru’.

In this era of polarization, Remco de Boer is keen to foster a nuanced narrative on the energy transition. Schooled as an engineer, the researcher has now spent two decades in the world of energy and construction.

RKP-H-RDBOER-639002.jpg

He wrote the book Tussen hoogmoed en hysterie, 5 jaar strijd tegen schaliegas in Nederland (‘Between Haughtiness and Hysteria: the 5-year battle against shale gas in the Netherlands’) and is a regular on news and current affairs programmes when it comes to the subject of energy. “Energy affects various areas of policy: economy, spatial planning, the social sphere. It’s an incredibly interesting subject.”

To criticize the concept is to criticize making things sustainable?

We put a number of assumptions about sustainability within Heijmans to Remco de Boer. De Boer recognizes the objection from Theo Smits that too much is being bet on one horse, namely the Stroomversnelling (‘Expedition’) or Nul-op-de-meter (‘Zero-on-the-meter’) renovations. Remco: “It’s true that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution for sustainability. It’s better to scrutinize what works in what situation. One oft-heard criticism of the Nul-op-de-meter (NOM) is that the concept is rather rigorous, that a ‘NOM light’ isn’t possible, proceeding in steps.”

De Boer points to the fact that the Stroomversnelling is being driven by a collective of major construction firms and corporations - who are keen to make great strides promptly. Yet criticism of NOM is tricky: “The ‘church of the Expediters’ is quickly getting out of hand. They’re suggesting that to be against NOM is to be against making things sustainable in general. In my view, the energy transition will benefit more from open dialogue in which there is room for all opinions and facts. That uncompromising attitude is counterproductive.”

"The process of making things sustainable is a quest for the government as well. This is the biggest transition for our generation, certainly not a piece of cake"

Sometimes it works well, sometimes it doesn’t

During his visits to a Netherlands on the path to sustainability, Remco witnessed a great many good initiatives. “An awful lot is happening. Countless people are engaged in coming up with innovative solutions - sometimes successfully, sometimes not. At any rate, it’s full steam ahead in terms of innovation, new insights and roles are being created in local authorities, corporations and grid operators.”

He cites ThuisBaas van Urgenda, a programme enabling residents to make their homes more sustainable themselves, step by step, with a return on investment period of fifteen years. “Great, isn’t it, that this exists alongside NOM? Let a thousand flowers bloom!” 

Who is footing the bill?

One important question within the compass of the sustainability drive is who will foot the bill. When it comes to the government's duties, De Boer argues for circumspection. “Thorough discussion is crucial in terms of the public purse and what public money has to be spent on. The process of making things sustainable is a quest for the government as well. This is the biggest transition for our generation, certainly not a piece of cake.”

However, the government could help to support certain innovations. De Boer sees that more expensive solutions are falling by the wayside and, due to lack of subsidies, are not being given an opportunity to be scaled up and therefore fall in price either. “That’s something that has happened in the case of wind energy. Constructing more offshore wind farms would halve the costs.”

Convenience, not patronization

What can we ourselves do? Theo’s advice to put on a jumper more often and eat less meat is already being adopted by De Boer himself. But getting this widespread? “These are encroachments on people’s privacy.

In the Netherlands, we’re not keen on being patronized, nor on being told how we ought to live. What’s more, such advice doesn’t catch on, isn’t sexy.” Above all, the energy researcher considers this to be at odds with the importance we attach to comfort and convenience in the home, to which Theo rightly alludes.

Importance of environment versus lowest price

De Boer does see more opportunities in insulation, one of the measures that the government is working hard on - in addition to driving down CO2 emissions and generating sustainable energy. “As an owner-occupier, you’ll have earned back the cost of cavity wall insulation within a year. Making it extremely convenient.”

spouwmuurisolatie.jpg

And yet too few people are doing this. Why? “Most people have no interest in this kind of thing! The reality is that climate change doesn’t bother the majority of Dutch people, as countless studies show”, sighs De Boer. “They’re swayed by the lowest price, the homo economicus can’t see what saving energy will do in terms of saving him money.” 

What does De Boer say about the steps Heijmans is taking towards natural gas-free neighbourhoods? “Although heat grids, heat pumps and geothermal energy would seem to be better alternatives, it’s conceivable that green gas is also a smart option in some areas of the Netherlands. So outlaw the use of fossil gas, not the infrastructure.”

In contrast to Theo, Remco takes a non-committal stance on ‘the future’: “This glut of free, clean energy is highly uncertain, we don’t yet have a clue as to whether or not it will be the case.” Hence we should let the primary message to the general public be saving energy, he advises.

All responsible

So what can a company like Heijmans do to expedite the process of making things sustainable? “The construction industry is willing and able to play a significant role in making things sustainable. That said, I baulk at the aplomb with which major construction firms speak of what they think needs to be done. A degree of modesty would suit the sector.”

There is hope nonetheless: “The role of the construction industry could become considerable within the energy transition, as society is calling for this. There is much that the construction industry could do in terms of recycling, for instance. But above all, don’t proclaim that your own concepts are the only solution, as that doesn't help to progress the transition. We’ve all got input in that regard, meaning we’re all responsible for the solution.”

RKP-H-RDBOER-642305.jpg