Smart Renewable Cities


Smart renewable cities in the Netherlands

How are cities dealing with the growing demand for green energy?

Worldwide, more and more people are living in cities, including in the Netherlands where more than eight million people now live in the Randstad area. All these residents require, and demand, an increasing amount of green energy. Renewables such as solar and wind energy are part of the solution, but they come with challenges, such as the impact on the public space and capacity problems for grid operators. 'Green, smart cities offer enormous opportunities for a livable, healthy, and economically attractive society, but only if we tackle the practical bottlenecks as quickly as possible', argues Lennert Middelkoop. His most important message: look beyond borders, organize collaborative processes, and be creative and pragmatic.

Cities are growing rapidly all over the world. In the Netherlands, nearly three-quarters of the population lives in urban regions, and that number is only increasing. Cities are attractive, we find work and entertainment there, but they also create new challenges, such as the fact that the demand for (green) energy is increasing alongside the number of city dwellers. ‘How to deal with this rising and changing energy demand is therefore a challenging issue for cities’, says Lennert Middelkoop, partner at Deloitte and specialized in healthy, green, and smart cities and regions. ‘The climate change crisis has created an increasing urgency to switch to renewables, such as hydro, solar, and wind energy, but there is still a big step to be made in that area,' says Middelkoop. 'Working from home and meeting all day long via Teams, for example, is not necessarily green and sustainable. We have to realize that all the power we consume has to be generated and transported somewhere. The demand is surging but not nearly enough wind and solar parks have been constructed to be able to meet it.

According to Middelkoop, there are various reasons why the growth of green energy cannot keep up with the demand. For example, while the energy transition is a major social issue, it constantly competes with other major issues such as the housing shortage, agricultural transition, or an inclusive society. This eventually slows down the development of new projects. In addition, there are also other, more practical bottlenecks that threaten to delay the growth of smart, green cities, such as the impact of renewables on public spaces. ‘People often think that putting solar panels on roofs and a wind farm or solar meadow here and there is the answer, but that is nowhere near enough to meet the growing demand for energy', says Middelkoop. ‘There are almost always oppositions against plans to build a wind turbine or solar park somewhere. People experience it as horizon pollution and have trouble with the fact that houses, sports fields, or schools can no longer be built in those places. It helps if you can overcome this resistance in a timely manner.' A second bottleneck that can get in the way of 'green growth' is network capacity problems. Energy sources based on wind and sun are intermittent, creating peaks and dips in the network, which means that investments are needed to make the network more resilient and adaptable. Middelkoop says: 'Grid operators regularly indicate that electricity networks are struggling to cope with large amounts of renewable power being pushed through to the grid, but also peaks in demand derived from the growing electrification of our economy. In many places, the network is not yet ready for the fast-growing number of solar panels, charging stations, and natural gas-free homes.'

‘The big, competing, social issues are often labeled as big hairy problems’, says Middelkoop, 'but the green smart city actually offers great opportunities for a livable, healthy, and economically attractive society, provided that we know how to tackle the (often overlooked) bottlenecks together.' Middelkoop gives three practical recommendations to accelerate conversations:

  1. Look beyond the boundaries of an organization, municipality, energy company or sector.
  2. Be creative, but also pragmatic.
  3. Make choices and organize collaborative processes.
Renewables (em)power smart cities

Look beyond the boundaries of an organization, municipality, energy company or sector

‘Although we talk about cities’, says Middelkoop, ‘Challenges with renewable energy often transcend municipal boundaries. Regional energy strategies have been drawn up, and that is positive, but focusing on the regional level is still too limited. Here lies a collaborative task for the central government, the provincial government, and municipalities. That may seem obvious, but this collaborative way of working is different from the way these entities have been working together in recent decades, during which the dialogue between these layers has been limited.' Middelkoop regularly organizes collaborative projects, facilitated by Deloitte. 'If we hear from a housing association that they are struggling to create an agreeable relationship with the municipality or find it difficult to enter into a conversation with a certain energy company, we organize a workshop where we invite all those parties. It helps to know everyone's language, and to be able to make the connection between the different points of view’, says Middelkoop. 'Each sector speaks its own language, which is crucial to take into account, because sometimes problems arise due to a lack of communication rather than through technical limitations.'

Be creative, but also pragmatic

'Zoom in, zoom out, and be creative when looking for solutions around limited urban spaces, among other things ', says Middelkoop. 'Some parts of the Netherlands are sinking, making the land less suitable for livestock farming or building houses. Perhaps those are the areas where you could install a solar park. The roofs of a number of business parks are now being filled with solar panels, and more and more farmers are installing wind turbines on their land. There are undoubtedly many more places where you can stimulate the multiple uses of space. And sometimes it is simply necessary to be pragmatic’, says Middelkoop. 'In the municipality of Utrecht, they started installing solar panels on all roofs. Some people say that it is not nearly enough, and that's true. But it's more than doing nothing. The project is still successful, more and more residents are installing panels on their roofs, and Utrecht is at the forefront of this.'

Make choices and organize collaborative processes

‘The government has an important role to play when it comes to giving direction and designating what has priority’, says Middelkoop. 'In order to steer the battle for square meters in the right direction, the government will need to decide where to build what; for example, where to build houses, and where to locate energy parks.' He also believes it would be wise for the government to organize collaborative processes. 'It doesn't stop with making a good plan; the executive power must also be organized and collaborate with different stakeholders. Currently, when it is done, it usually happens within the municipal boundaries. The same applies to energy companies: when they organize collaborative processes, it is about their own connection area, even though the issues that lie ahead transcend municipalities and regions, in terms of financial resources and capacity’. ‘Another factor is that energy companies are in transition to, for example, energy as a service. In short: their business model is changing', says Middelkoop. 'The government can also help companies with this.' Finally, he points to the fact that there is still no Dutch city on the list of smart green frontrunners. 'I am curious to see which city will be the first to appear on this list. Such a competition element will undoubtedly motivate people to start working on this today.'

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