Flower power

A large proportion of the power generated in the Netherlands comes from decentralized plants, many in the greenhouses of its ‘market gardens’. The country may soon become an exporter of electricity, although little of its output comes from renewable or nuclear sources, writes Dr. Jacob Klimstra of the Jacob Klimstra Consultancy.


Jacob Klimstra



Dr. Jacob Klimstra, Jacob Klimstra Consultancy, The Netherlands



Energy Park Eemshaven – the site is on track to generate 7500 MW of electricity, sufficient to supply approximately 35 per cent of the Netherlands Source: Groningen Seaports

It is clear that an effective and efficient electricity supply is of crucial importance to the Netherlands. The country’s per capita total primary energy use of 205 GJ per annum is the 15th highest in the world; its population density of 400 people/km2 is the 27th highest.

Horticulture in the Netherlands is another major user of energy. This sector of the economy is based on the use of glasshouses in which to grow crops and is responsible for more than ten per cent of national gas consumption. Next to this is an extensive service sector that depends heavily on modern communications.

In the Netherlands, only 4 TWh of the total annual electricity production of 112 TWh in 2009 came from nuclear power, which explains in large part the country’s high CO2 emissions per citizen. Only one nuclear power plant is in operation. This is Borssele, a 500 MW plant owned by energy company Delta and Energy Resources Holding that has been in operation since 1973 and that had a major upgrade in 1996.

Renewable production of electricity accounts for only 9 TWh. Although that equals 8 per cent of electricity production it is only a few per cent of all energy used. It is interesting to note that in 2008 the country imported 13 TWh of electricity based on renewables. That is about 50 per cent more than the electricity produced from renewables in the country itself. In the first decade of the 21st century the Netherlands showed a small but steady increase in electricity use per capita.

This stopped abruptly in 2008 because of the financial crisis (see Figure 1) but consumption is rising again. Interestingly the drop in electricity use hardly changed electricity production; it decreased net imports. Decentralized generation has great penetration in the country. In 2008 cogeneration installations produced about 37 per cent of electricity consumed. Although the bulk of this type of capacity in the Netherlands consists of gas turbine installations in the process industry, which consists of chemical plants dairy factories and refineries, most CHP capacity added between 2000 and 2009 came from greenhouse companies that installed power plants driven by reciprocating engines.

Figure 1: Per capita electricity in the Netherlands during the first decade of the 21st Century Source: CBS

Greenhouses increase crop growth by using artificial lighting, heat and CO2, all of which local power plants can easily provide. Moreover switching off the assimilation lights during peak hours gives excellent opportunities for supporting the grid.

Figure 2: Development of wind energy in the Netherlands Source: CBS

By using special electric light in the greenhouses when it is dark, the plants continue to grow, resulting is a substantially increased crop. Such ancillary services for the grid are generally lucrative because the equipment is normally used for other purposes. Any temporary discrepancies between the electricity production and heating needs of the greenhouse can be solved with heat storage systems. Figure 3 illustrates the growth in medium-size cogeneration installations and compares it with the total CHP portfolio.

Figure 3: Development of cogeneration capacity in the Netherlands Source: CBS


Change of scene


Liberalization of the energy markets and unbundling of the integrated utilities has completely changed the power sector in the Netherlands. Almost every province or major municipality was originally a utility and each province owned at least one power plant. After major mergers, foreign organizations acquired the largest companies, Essent and Nuon. Vattenfall of Sweden now owns Nuon while RWE of Germany has bought Essent.

Electrabel Nederland, part of the GDF Suez Group, has seven power plants in the Netherlands that have a combined capacity of 4300 MW and is the largest producer. The country’s other plants are operated by E.ON, Delta, Essent and Nuon. In April 2010 the total installed capacity of large power plants in the Netherlands was 16.2 GW. In 2006, before the credit crunch, expectations were that Dutch demand for electricity would increase at 2-2.5 per cent per year.

Major causes were to be economic growth and greater use of information and communication technologies. Stringent rules for energy savings in buildings would promote the use of electric heat pumps and forced ventilation. Also, the emerging market for electric vehicles might spur demand, according to these projections. Plans for rapidly expanding capacity by 9 GW were on the table.

Today Electrabel is developing an 800 MW coal and biomass power station near Rotterdam, a city near which Enerco and Dong are building the 870 MW Enecogen gas fired combined cycle plant. This facility will employ Siemens F-class turbines and have a projected electrical efficiency of 59 per cent. Nuon recently ordered a 435 MW unit based on the same Siemens technology to replace an older power plant in Amsterdam.

In the port of the Eemshaven, in Groningen province in the north of the country, the activity of three parties could soon make the Netherlands a net exporter of electricity. RWE is building a 1600 MW coal and biomass plant, Vattenfall is working on a 1200 MW mixed-fuel plant and Advanced Power from Switzerland is developing a 1200 MW combined-cycle gas fired plant. Delta has applied for permission to build a large nuclear power plant in the southwestern province of Zeeland, intended to be operational by 2017.

Eemshaven, a popular location for new power plants in the Netherlands

The choice of coastal locations for power plants has a simple logic behind it: there is sufficient cooling water available, even during hot summer days, and coal or biomass can be imported easily on sea-borne bulk carriers. The Netherlands aims to become the main natural gas hub in Europe as the country has easy access to energy. Natural gas has been the major source of its energy for more than three decades now, the fuel coming mainly from the large Groningen field in the north.

But the Netherlands also has direct or indirect connections with gas resources in Norway and Russia and has a large gas source and LNG terminals near the Eemshaven. Gas use is one of the factors that have stimulated the growth of process industries and refineries in the Netherlands, as are the presence of the country’s major seaports such as Rotterdam and Amsterdam and its important neighbour Germany.

Eemshaven is also the location at which the 800 MW HVDC transmission line between Norway and the Netherlands lands.


Dark clouds AHEAD?


Despite all the positive developments with respect to extending and innovating electricity generation in the Netherlands, there are also dark clouds on the horizon.

Any large extension of the high-voltage transmission grid meets much opposition. Citizens fear that electromagnetic radiation might cause cancer and they dislike the view of high pylons and lines. Resistance by the general public can substantially delay and complicate the building of new transmission capacity. Lead times of up to seven years are no exception. People also do not want power plants in their backyards because of possible emissions.

Eemshaven is a good location in that respect as the population density there is very low and appears to be shrinking. There is also much concern in the Netherlands about reaching the desired target for reduction of greenhouse gases. Producing electricity for neighbouring countries will further increase the country’s already high specific CO2 emissions.

Although in 2009 almost 577 MW offshore wind power was added to the wind-based capacity to bring the total now to 2.6 GW, wind produces only 4.5 per cent of the total national demand for electricity. Figure 2 shows the development in electricity production from wind.

Part of the increase in 2008 and 2009 was caused by strong winds in those years. The output from the wind turbines shows large variability, ranging from 200-700 GWh/month. This is partly because of the small size of the Netherlands. The country tends to feels the effects of a weather system as a whole.

The Social Economic Council, a body consisting of employers, employees and specialists appointed by the Crown to advise the government on social-economic issues, recently criticized the government’s policy on renewable energy.

The inconsistencies in policy and sudden unexpected changes in subsidy schemes means that some companies have shut renewable power plants and stopped plans for investing in them. A recent example is the closure of the 25 MW biomass based power plant in Cuijk.

Shell has also announced it will reduce its activities in solar, wind and hydrogen energy. In comparison, Germany and Belgium have much better long-term policies with respect to renewables and cogeneration. Another example of an obstacle to renewables surrounds a proposed test with carbon storage in the municipality of Barendrecht near Rotterdam. The population there fears leakage from the underground depository and the plan to store carbon there has yet to be given the green light.


Long-term vision


National elections will be on 9 June 2010. The hope is that the new policy makers will develop a long-term vision with respect to energy supply, electricity generation and emissions reduction.

Whatever the case, electricity will play an increasing role in Dutch society. A reliable and affordable supply is crucial for the economy. The location of the Netherlands is ideal for importing and exporting both fuel and electricity. Specialized research institutes such as KEMA, TNO and ECN have the capabilities to perform the required background studies. Three technical universities and many technical colleges would deliver the required manpower for designing, building, operating and maintaining power plants and generating equipment.

Whichever energy scenario evolves, the power sector will grow in importance and in its impact on society in the Netherlands.


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