In the 1970s, the Emmerhout district was still a place of pilgrimage for urban planners. Planners and civil servants from all over the country came to Emmen to see the first Dutch ‘cauliflower district’ with their own eyes. The neighborhood with residential areas – something between a street and a square – was set up in a quiet and green way, with as few traffic streets as possible. One ring road connects all residential areas. As a result, the neighborhood looks like a cauliflower cut through from the air.
Half a century later, the district is due for a facelift. Many sidewalks are jaded, benches are grown together with weeds, and some houses have the paint peeling off. In order to give the district an impulse, the municipality of Emmen and the province of Drenthe decided in 2017 to designate Emmerhout as the first district in Drenthe to get rid of gas. And that within ten years.
The residents reacted enthusiastically and united in various working groups, together with housing corporations, energy companies and network operators. Emmerhout would again become a model district.
But by mid-2021, little has come of those ambitious plans. Time and again, the district missed out on subsidies from The Hague. “We are very good at talking,” says Wytse Bouma (62), chairman of the residents’ association Wijkbelangen Emmerhout. “But after four years of talking, we need money to actually do something.”
Since 2018, 46 districts, spread across the country, have received a subsidy from the government to make homes natural gas-free. These so-called testing grounds should serve as an example for the rest of the Netherlands. According to the Climate Agreement, 1.5 million homes must be made natural gas-free by 2030, and all eight million buildings in the Netherlands by 2050.
Emmen twice submitted a subsidy application for Emmerhout as a testing ground, but it was rejected both times. The residents want to continue with the energy transition, but the municipality is now pressing the pause button.
How is the energy transition progressing in a neighborhood like Emmerhout, which is being groomed to get rid of gas, but lacks the necessary subsidy?
In 2017, Emmerhout seemed the ideal neighborhood to make natural gas-free. The total of 3,500 homes consist of nine types, which means that the entire district only needs nine technical solutions to disconnect the gas in all houses. The residents were also active and strongly united in a residents’ association.
There was also a social reason to start in Emmerhout in particular: the income there is almost 20 percent lower than the average in the Netherlands. Many local residents do not have the money to participate in the energy transition.
How do you manage it then, asks former primary school director and district chairperson Bouma. Sitting next to him are three other members of Emmerhout Energieneutral, all with a house for sale, insulated walls and solar panels on the roof. They are the driving forces behind Emmerhout Energieneutral, the residents’ association that has to make the neighborhood more sustainable. But these retired men are not representative of the neighborhood.
“Many residents in Emmerhout have bought a home with their last cents,” explains Bouma. “Often these are rental homes discarded by the housing associations with overdue maintenance. Many of them can’t put money aside for double glazing; they wonder how they will make it to the end of the month. They cannot afford the way of setting aside a tenner a month for insulation, which pays for itself in the long run in a lower energy bill,” says Bouma. “How do you involve those people in the energy transition?”
The idea was to be the first to remove gas from their homes in 2018. The municipality applied for a million-dollar subsidy from the Ministry of the Interior to remove five hundred homes from gas completely by means of insulation and heat pumps.
That application was therefore rejected. Two years later, the council proposed to make another part of the neighborhood ‘natural gas-free-ready’ – to insulate it and convert it in such a way that every natural gas-free option would be possible. But that application was also rejected.
The municipality went to get a story in The Hague. “We met the requirements set for the projects,” said a spokesperson. But it yielded no other result.
“That struck us raw on the roof,” says Bouma. By now they had gathered dozens of volunteers and enthusiasts for the neighborhood plans.
The municipality also stops
The disappointment was even greater when at the end of last year the municipality itself also withdrew its hands from making Emmerhout more sustainable. Emmen has to cut back a lot and makes hard choices. With Emmerhout, the municipality is therefore ‘putting on hold’.
The sustainability budget now goes to industry, where about 70 percent of the CO2emissions in Emmen come from. “In industry and business, more can be achieved with limited financial resources,” said the spokesman for the municipality.
“Disappointing,” says Bouma. He sees that it is becoming more difficult to maintain the enthusiasm in the neighborhood for the energy transition. “Because making homes gas-free is progressing so slowly in the Netherlands, people are much more skeptical than a few years ago.” Volunteers have also dropped out.
“As residents, we can’t make a fist,” says neighborhood resident Fred Bogers (69), who as a voluntary energy coach answers questions from residents every Tuesday afternoon. “We know little about legislation, do not know the infrastructure, do not know what the exact costs are and which energy sources are feasible.” He regrets that. “It is now up to the politicians, and the citizens are on the side. While that could go hand in hand.”
Bouma and the other trailblazers continue as usual. “What else are we supposed to do?” he laughs.
For example, electrical engineer Martin Hornis (77) goes door-to-door to explain to local residents about quotations for solar panels. And during neighborhood meetings, Hans van Os (69) shows his energy bill to anyone who wants to. He saves tens of euros per month thanks to insulation and solar panels. “That openness is necessary,” he says.
Emmerhout Energieneutral has also acquired an old house that it will convert into a zero-on-the-meter house. Bouma: “People should be able to see what is possible with their home.”
But they are all small steps on the road to an energy transition that seems to be getting longer in Emmen. “I thought it was ambitious from the start to be disconnected from gas by 2027,” says Bouma. Now the question is whether the district will get rid of gas at all. All Emmerhout needs is a bag of money. “Then we will be renovating within two years,” says Hornis.
Public Housing Fund
Recently, there has been unexpected hope for a positive turn. This month it was announced that Emmen will receive 25 million euros from the government through the Public Housing Fund. That money is intended for making Emmerhout, among other things, more sustainable.
That is good news. Although it may take the municipality ten years to spend the money, according to Bouma and his neighbors it offers perspective. He hopes they won’t have to wait another ten years before they can roll up their sleeves. “We have done enough talking by now.”
The interview with Maarten van Poelgoest: ‘If we want to achieve the climate goals, we need bold choices now’
Municipalities want to be able to make houses gas-free
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of July 27, 2021