The strength of collective networks"What is the spatial impact and what are the opportunities of an ‘energy neutral’ West Brabant,
where in 2050, only renewable energy resources are used? "
Dutch Smart Thermal Grid: heat
Almost 70 % of the Dutch energy demand consists of the heating of homes, businesses, industry and horticulture. The majority of this heat is currently produced by the burning of natural gas. At the current rate in which we excavate natural gas in Groningen, the gas reserves will be depleted within 50 years. Without reserves we would have to rely on importing natural gas, from Russia for example. Climate change, rising energy bills and geopolitical dependence, we cannot continue like this. Creating a sustainable heat supply is urgent. But how?
Even though the heat demand is huge, there are some regions such as South-Holland and West-Brabant with a large amount of waste heat available from the petrochemical industry, power plants and waste treatment plants. A small portion of this heat is being transported to our homes and the horticulture through collective heat networks. There is however a debate on the sustainability or green character of this waste heat that is produced by coal and oil. In addition to this, the availability and costs of these fossil fuels are uncertain.
Should we therefore abandon the construction of heat networks? On the contrary. There is a different and much more sustainable and cost efficient heat source which can be utilized using the same infrastructure, geothermal energy. With geothermal energy, hot water or steam is pumped up from 2 to 4 kilometers deep. Based on current knowledge of the substrate and the first drillings there seems to be enough geothermal potential to fulfill in the heat demand of the entire Netherlands! Compared to small-scale heat production such as solar water heaters and heat pumps, geothermal energy is by far the cheapest form of heat generation (euro / PJ / year). Geothermal energy has another important advantage: the visible spatial impact is minimal. This means that unlike wind energy for example, little social resistance is expected, allowing a large-scale implementation. In the following years the regions where heat demand and the supply of waste heat and geothermal energy are close together "regional smart thermal grids” will arise. In the next phase, waste heat and geothermal heat networks can be constructed to transport heat across longer distances through well-insulated piping. Slowly but surely a nationwide (or even transboundary) robust heat network will emerge, where a large diversity of heat sources can offer heat to an even larger diversity of demanders: the 'Dutch Smart Thermal Grid’.
In West Brabant wind energy is the most cost effective solution for a sustainable electricity production. In the northwestern part of the region (closer to open water) the average wind speed, and thus the efficiency of windmills, is nearly twice as high as in the southeastern part. An electric neutral West Brabant means that throughout the northwestern half of the region windmills should be placed. In addition to wind turbines, solar energy is possible (PV on roofs and in landfills and fresnel technology on greenhouses) but costly and inadequate to meet the demand. The solar farms option is excluded in this study because we believe it competes with food production.
Agriculture and chemistry are important sectors of the economy of West Brabant. The northwestern part of the region is characterized by fertile clay soils where sugar beets and potatoes are grown. Large scale Agri-businesses are based here which must compete on a global market and are therefore looking for new revenue models. The strategic location of West-Brabant in the Rhine-Meuse delta between the ports of Rotterdam and Antwerp have also stimulated the growth of the petrochemical industry. But with the increasing scarcity of fossil fuels, this sector is looking at the opportunities of bio-based raw materials. The presence of both organic residues (agriculture and horticulture) as well as a processing (chemical) industry and the good cooperation between these two sectors in the region has led to a leading role on a European scale. With this ideal starting position new development opportunities and investment opportunities will be created. The region needs to build on this leading role and increase the synergy between these industries. With the realization of a ‘Biobased Backbone’ between Rotterdam and Antwerp, heat, biomass, raw materials and C02 can be transported to improve the interaction between supply and demand. For more information, visit
The energy transition of West Brabant cannot be separated from this development and is a precondition for a transition towards a biobased economy. The transition towards a biobased economy offers new opportunities for the energy transition. After the processing/valorization of biomass, a portion of the biomass will still be available as low-grade residues for energy production through fermentation (biogas) or combustion (electricity and heat). Because biomass (unlike wind and solar) can be stored and will therefore be continuously available, it can be an important component of a reliable sustainable energy supply (baseload).
It is difficult to foresee wat the spatial impact of these developments would be on the landscape. Although we all strive towards a rich and biodiverse landscape it is likely that a biobased economy will mostly benefit from large-scale farming (more beets) and efficient processing of biomass. This requires new types of landscape and a more layered approach towards the task. It is also important that the region clearly appoints where the transition is given the space (transition landscape) and where other landscapes and heritage values can be preserved or even strengthened. This will create a so called casco landscape, where the quality of life, nature values, cultural heritage and large-scale farming can coexist.
We live in a time where the self-determination of citizens prevails and decentralization and bottom-up approaches are trending. The energy transition requires good coordination and (central) control where guidance is given and the right conditions are created. In addition to this, local authorities seem to have insufficient knowledge of the energy transition to come to a reasoned decision. For the public interest, the national government, provinces and research institutes will have to play a key role on this subject.