By Joey Reedijk and Anne de Coster, the Drechtsteden
The Dutch government aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 49% compared to 1990 by 2030. This includes the objective to get 1.5 million households off the natural gas grid. The responsibility for this has been allocated to the municipalities.
The Drechtsteden, with just short of 300,000 residents, is a small region of seven cooperating municipalities. In order to reduce households’ dependence on fossil gas, several municipalities have begun to construct heat networks using waste incineration, geothermal and aquathermal energy.
The region sees the phase-out of gas as multi-faceted: it also entails the need for well-insulated homes, the potential to create jobs, and the importance of looking beyond 2030. In this article, we talk about our current approach to reducing households’ gas dependency and the challenges and opportunities we identify for the years to come.
Transitioning away from fossil gas
It might seem confusing that the Netherlands is working to reduce its fossil gas dependency while consumption is experiencing an upward trend in several EU member states (Eurostat, 2020). Therefore, it might be useful to understand the Dutch context a little better.
Fossil gas reserves were first detected in the Netherlands in the late 1940s. Oil companies began extracting gas in Groningen, in the north-east of the country, in 1959. Soon, they discovered Groningen was home to one of Europe’s largest gas fields. By the mid-seventies, 75% of all Dutch households were relying on gas for heating and cooking. Gas was also exported to several other European countries, including neighbours Belgium, France, and Germany. Part of the profit went to the national government.
Over the years, two things became clear. First, intensive gas extraction was causing increasingly strong and frequent earthquakes in Groningen. Second, though gas emits less greenhouse gases than coal, it has a significant methane footprint. (Methane traps about 84 times more heat per mass unit than CO2.) In 2018, the Dutch government announced that gas extraction in the region had to come to an end, and proposed a gradual phase-out from 2018 to 2030.
National objectives, local delivery
In 2019, a national climate agreement was signed, setting the ambition to take 1.5 million households off fossil gas by 2030. The responsibility for this transition has been allocated to the municipalities. Phasing out gas usage is very much a local endeavour: there are big differences in terms of population density and potential alternative energy sources across the country. Even within municipalities, there are often significant variations in terms of the type and age of housing and home ownership patterns, all factors that affect the options for switching from fossil gas to other energy sources. Therefore, municipalities draw plans on the district level.
The phase-out in the Drechtsteden
The Drechtsteden are located in South Holland, close to Rotterdam. The region is small, densely populated, and highly urbanised, home to some 128,000 households. In 2019, the region set a target to remove at least 12,000 households from the gas grid by 2030, and an ambition to increase this number to 25,000.
Credit: Drechtsteden municipalities
About one third of the housing stock is social housing, and 40% of the households in the region are low-income (Drechtsteden Research Centre, 2016). It is very important that residents are not financially burdened by the transition. At the same time, it is important that they can actively participate in the decision-making process. We are therefore conducting a large-scale online participation process that includes questionnaires, interactive mapping, and online discussions. All Drechtsteden residents can take part and weigh in with their ideas and worries regarding possible alternative energy solutions for their district and municipality. In order to reach as many residents as possible, we use clear language, easy-to-understand visuals, and a combination of online and offline communication channels, such as letters, local newspaper articles, and adverts on different social media channels.
Connecting households to the heat network
The largest municipality is Dordrecht, with about 55,000 households. It is home to the most advanced heat network in the region, which currently consists of about 22 kilometres of piping and provides 6,000 households with heat from waste incineration. Other municipalities have begun constructing their own networks, relying on aquathermal energy (extracted from water sources) and geothermal energy (extracted from the earth). These networks are currently much smaller, though we aim to expand them in the years to come.
Expanding the heat network is expensive, and in many cases, the financial burden of connecting households to the network is too high for the residents, municipalities and region to carry. To avoid financially burdening residents, we only expand the network when we can guarantee that heating costs for residents will not increase. To be as cost-effective as possible, municipalities have mapped areas where network expansion is most financially viable. This allows them to maximise the number of households to be connected to the heat network. For example, public funds were recently made available for the expansion of the heat network to an additional 6,000 dwellings, all social housing. We expect that, if successful, this project will open up opportunities to gradually expand the heat networks.
Insulating residential buildings
As well as expanding our heat networks and increasing our use of locally available renewable energy sources, we are working to improve insulation of our residential buildings. Insulation is a good idea in most cases because it decreases energy demand. In the Drechtsteden, it has added importance because the available renewable energy sources (geothermal and aquathermal) are low temperature. This means that they are not able to provide the same temperatures as gas currently does. Without good insulation, switching to these energy sources could lead to older, poorly insulated residential buildings failing to maintain a decent standard of heating. To ensure we do not increase energy poverty, we see the expansion of our heat networks as interlinked with the need to insulate households on a large scale.
Regional coordination and knowledge-exchange
Such a multi-level approach is not possible without coordination and cooperation. The seven municipalities coordinate at the regional and provincial levels. This effort involves standardisation of objectives and implementation methods and, whenever possible, joint implementation too. There is a well-established network of cooperating municipal, regional and provincial policy workers, which facilitates fast and effective knowledge exchange.
Challenges and opportunities
Credit: Drechtsteden municipalities
The phase-out of natural gas comes with a set of challenges, some of which have been discussed above. However, it is also important to highlight that the Drechtsteden region sees opportunities. From extending heat networks to insulating buildings, the phase-out of gas means a physical transformation of our built environments. To ensure this happens as smoothly as possible, we have an increasing need for skilled workers such as carpenters and construction workers. We intend to invest in providing local workers with the training and education needed to help us meet our objectives. In this way, the energy transition can create quality jobs and contribute to the social prosperity of our region.
In this article, we have focused on the 2030 objective to take at least 12,000 households off the gas grid. However, the long-term objective is to be completely carbon neutral. This means a complete phase-out of gas, along with further transformations in out heat networks. Our largest network currently relies on waste incineration. Although this is a lot cleaner than using coal or gas, it is not CO2-neutral. We expect to make an intensified effort to insulate residential buildings, a further roll-out of the underground network connecting households to the heat network, and the eventual replacement of waste incineration with a cleaner energy source.
About the authors:
Joey Reedijk is regional programme manager in charge of overseeing the energy transition in the Drechtsteden. He has been involved with this issue since 2018.
Anne de Koster is a trainee on the energy transition in the Drechtsteden. With a background in sustainability and urban planning, she joined the team in 2020.
 Because the phase-out of gas extraction within the country is planned to happen faster than that of gas usage, imported gas will be used to bridge the gap. Sources: