In the house of retired bricklayer Cees Snellens (80) much is like it used to be. The Persian carpet on the floor, the dark wooden cupboard. The line of dolls his wife collected during their vacations. He knows every stone of the house. He built it himself in the eighties, in the evenings.
Next year something will change about his house at the Thomashof in Terheijden. Snellens is going off natural gas, and he’s fine with that. Then his heating no longer comes from the central heating boiler, but he buys sustainable heat from the village’s new, own energy company. “Most of them here participated, and I liked that.”
The village near Breda has been working on a plan since 2017 that is almost unique in the Netherlands. A group of residents, united in the Traais Energie Collectief (TEC), is working together with energy entrepreneur Pim de Ridder, who was born in the village, on a collective green energy supply for the village. With a heat network without fossil fuels, its own windmill and a solar park.
NRC followed the progress in Terheijden for over two years. In the hot summer of 2019, the excavation work started to lay the pipes for the new heat network in the first streets in the village center. The initiators expected that the first residents would be connected within a year.
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That turned out to be too optimistic. It will be 2022, is now the plan. But entrepreneur Pim de Ridder and the TEC collective have not yet given up on any of their plans. The entire green energy project is being carried out as it was conceived, and with financial support from the village. Of the households in the center that are under construction along the heat network, 55 percent have now concluded a contract with the new collective energy company TREM, the Traaise Energie Maatschappij.
Residents and companies from Terheijden also invested more than half a million euros last year by buying bonds for the energy plans. It is a considerable amount for a village of six thousand people, and TREM is considering a second issue next year.
The contrast with most other pioneering natural gas-free neighborhoods is great. In 2018, 27 municipalities, including Drimmelen, where Terheijden is located, received the first millions of subsidies from the Ministry of the Interior to ‘get rid of gas’. At the beginning of this year, inventory NRC that there was clarity about an action plan in only ten of those 27 ‘living room projects’. Also, work had already started in only ten municipalities.
Also read about another natural gas-free district: Not everyone in Rotterdam’s ‘Botu’ embraces district heating.
Last month, the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (PBL) wrote in the annual Climate and Energy Exploration that the planned making natural gas-free residential areas, as agreed by the cabinet in 2019, does not live up to expectations. Only limited progress has been made, according to the PBL.
But in Terheijden it works. Why? Not because the villagers are so committed to sustainability – Drimmelen votes in the political center. But in conversations with residents, one thing stands out: they have confidence in the initiators.
Like former bricklayer Snellens in the Thomashof. He is “not so concerned” with the climate, he says. In recent years, however, he gradually became convinced of the green plan. He went to residents’ evenings, later a TREM employee came to his home to determine how everything should be laid out. “I received good information, it looked good.” And he talked to his neighbors. “They all participate in this.”
The new energy company has noticed in recent months that the 130 first customers are not randomly distributed over the village. There are groups where residents participate in the heat network from house to house. The Thomashof is such a place, TREM told NRC. Thirteen houses are located on a small square. They were built in the late 1980s on vacant lots, all different. Most residents have lived there since the beginning, and are now sixty-plus. The heat pipes have been in the street since July.
“It’s our own club,” says construction engineer Johan van Oosterhout (64) about the energy collective. “I know those people, they are enthusiastic.”
Like Snellens, he signed a contract for ‘Traaise warmth’. He is also positive about the residents’ evenings. “It’s with a beer and a cup of coffee. We could ask all the stupid questions.”
Van Oosterhout and his wife are committed to sustainability. They put on an extra vest in the winter, and their solar panels will be delivered in two weeks. “We are participating in the big story that the Netherlands is ‘getting off gas’. But also because it is something of our own.”
Two-thirds of Dutch people are concerned about the consequences of climate change in their own lives and want action as soon as possible, according to recent research by the Social and Cultural Planning Office. But many citizens also feel that measures are being ‘forced’ and are concerned about the impact on their wallets.
Residents do not feel involved enough with natural gas-free living, a survey showed survey in seven pioneering ‘natural gas-free’ neighborhoods.
That is a risk for the climate plans. Dissatisfied residents are more likely to oppose local wind and solar parks and heat networks. And with a heat network, the financial feasibility is endangered, because such a network only becomes profitable if a large majority of the residents want to become customers.
So professional sustainability people try to learn lessons from the pioneering work in Terheijden. “The exceptional thing about Terheijden is that a story is told,” says anthropologist Ragnhild Scheifes, who does a lot of consultancy work for green citizen initiatives. Commissioned by entrepreneur Pim de Ridder, the province of Noord-Brabant and network company Enexis, she did one and a half years of fieldwork in Terheijden. “It is the story of ‘putting your shoulders underneath’, which fits the history of the village. And there is conviviality and professionalism. ”
Setting up a local heating company is complex. Scheifes sees enthusiastic citizens in the country who are not getting any further, or companies that are unable to get a foothold locally. “Companies say they work with an energy cooperative, but often it turns out that they are a club of five retired men,” says Scheifes. “These men know everything about technology, but little about communication. And the key figures from the community, the people from the village or the neighborhood that everyone knows, are often not among them.”
The fact that De Ridder grew up in Terheijden almost automatically gives him credit in the village. But Scheifes is convinced that residents’ collectives can also find a common story elsewhere. In Oudewater in the Groene Hart, where she supervises a project herself, three local farmers are actively involved. Farmers, traditionally used to the changing landscape, are now tackling subsidence and the energy transition. “They caught on to that story.”
In Terheijden, says the anthropologist, not everyone is convinced by the green plans. There too there is mistrust, there are skeptics – and not necessarily less than elsewhere. During the tour of the Thomashof, some residents say that, unlike their neighbors, they do not participate, or not yet. None of them want to contribute to this article.
But the large middle group that does not want to dwell on something as abstract as a heat network is sensitive to the ‘honest story’ from the village, Scheifes thinks. The 3,000 euros subsidy per household that was made available from the Living Labs project of the Interior, does the rest.
Former soldier Werner Ceelen (75), who lives with his wife Tineke in a spacious and bright house on Thomashof, criticizes the national plans for natural gas-free living. “It didn’t have to be so hasty, there is still plenty of gas on earth.”
Ceelen has “no interest at all” in spending money on the new heat network, he says. “Everyone can say that your house is worth more, but I don’t find that all that interesting. It may sound a bit selfish, but the only thing we still find important is a nice old age. But I didn’t want to set myself apart from the rest.”
“From the people here at the square,” explains his wife.
And it was quite attractive financially, she says. The energy cooperative has calculated everything: the subsidy covers all their connection costs.
He: „You still have the misery of digging. If only the street had to open again for our house… It was financially neutral, that is black or white. So we’ll just join in.”
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