Politicians wake up


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Wind energy has been dealt a serious blow in the Netherlands. Arbitrators called in to settle the dispute over payment for wind power have ruled that the existing Electricity Law does not allow for any latitude: a standard tariff is a standard tariff and there can be no special provision for a premium price for clean energy (see pages 16-17). Even with the 30% capital subsidy available from government, investment in wind power is now too uncertain to make the risk worthwhile.

What is particularly galling for Dutch wind proponents is that it took four years to get to where they are today. It was four years ago that the impasse on prices was reached between Pawex, representing private owners of wind plant, on one side of the table, and EnergieNed, the organisation of electricity distribution companies, on the other. For two years arbitrators have mulled the matter over before coming to a conclusion that was anticipated all along -- if all they were going to do was adhere to the very letter of the law.

This snail's progress is all the more painful because, five or six years ago, it appeared the Netherlands would be one of the leading European nations in development and sales of wind power technology, perhaps only second to Denmark. Since then it has been surpassed by Germany, the United Kingdom and almost by Spain. Sweden and Greece are on its heels and a shining future for wind energy in the Netherlands has dulled under the very noses of the people who were once numbered amongst the world's leaders.

If time is so important, why did the arbitrators repeatedly refer the matter back to the table, most recently at the beginning of the year? The two parties had long since stopped talking to one another. Why, indeed, bother calling in Stan Dessens, the highest ranking energy civil servant at the Ministry of Economic Affairs, as mediator? EnergieNed has not budged one inch throughout, or even showed signs of doing so. The organisation even ignored the attempt by Dessens to break the deadlock. Compromise solutions have been offered time and again, including one last month, but never to any avail.

It has been clear from the start that EnergieNed knew it had no obligation to pay a fair price for wind energy -- and certainly had no intention of doing so of its volition. Instead the organisation has put all its efforts into stalling a political decision on encouraging independent development of renewables in the hope the political wind in favour of them would change direction or die. EnergieNed is behaving like a typical Dutch merchant. It wants a product at the cheapest price possible -- and fears giving any one customer special treatment. In other words, short term financial interests are taking precedence over sensible long term planning. Energy technologies which will be essential in the future -- as fossil fuels run out and demand for electricity rises -- are not being developed to their full potential. The shining promise of nuclear power lost its lustre a long time ago in the Netherlands and for a country so dependent on imported fuel it seems strange that wind -- an indigenous energy source -- continues to get short changed. Remember, too, that reduction of pollution by using clean energy sources is theoretically national policy and wind technology was once regarded as a potential pillar, albeit a small one, of Dutch industry.

EnergieNed is not about to be torn apart by this conflict between short and long term goals -- far from it. So what seems to have happened is that independent development of wind power has been condemned to a marginal existence -- while the utilities have been put in sole charge of furthering the cause. No doubt they will continue to dabble in wind, claiming they are doing their best with an "expensive and unreliable" technology. In the meantime, the other countries of Europe will continue to forge ahead.

Political intervention is needed now to rescue Dutch wind energy from this undeserved fate. The Electricity Law needs to include a mechanism which financially rewards renewable energy -- because it is infinite, because it is clean, because it needs to be developed now for the use of future generations. Compared with the enormous sums pumped into experimental coal plant and nuclear power, the price is a small one to pay. The Dutch utilities once put far more into the abortive Kalkar breeder reactor -- and for far less gain.

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