Demand outstrips green power supplies

Sales of "natural energy" at a premium price are proving so popular in the Netherlands that utilities are crying out for more electricity from renewable sources. At least one utility is faced with suspending its green pricing program.

Further evidence that planning procedures and bureaucratic foot-dragging are significantly hampering the development of the Dutch renewables sector comes with the announcement that Arnhem-based utility NUON is contemplating the temporary suspension of its green electricity scheme on the grounds that it is proving too popular.

The number of subscribers to the NUON "natuurstroom" scheme -- under which electricity consumers pay a premium price for their power, with the extra revenue being ploughed back into renewables development -- doubled last year to 4500 and look set to double again by 1999. At this point, according to NUON product manager Johan Bergsma, the utility's renewables resources will be exhausted. "Then we will be at our limit. At the present time we can't supply any more green electricity."

First piloted by Brabant utility PNEM in 1995, green electricity schemes in the Netherlands have been introduced by numerous utilities nationwide, with some 45,000 consumers currently opting to put their hands in their pockets for the sake of a better environment. Whereas under most schemes green electricity sales are only nominally related to renewable energy produced, under the NUON scheme, launched in 1996, the relationship between supply and demand is more direct. "It's just the same as a biscuit factory," explains NUON's director of renewable energy Annemarie Goedmakers. "We have the capacity to produce so many biscuits and once that capacity is reached there are no more biscuits until we build a new factory."

Out of biscuits

With some 6000 green electricity customers and total annual renewable energy production between 30-40 million kWh, NUON is fast running out of biscuits. The construction of a new 19 MW wind farm in Zeewolde on the Eemmeerdijk -- financed from the proceeds of its "natuurstroom" scheme -- means the company will be able to keep pace with demand in the short term, but new locations are becoming ever more difficult to find.

Although describing the possibility of suspending the scheme as more "theoretical" than probable, Goedmakers confirms that NUON is presently "more concerned with finding new sources of renewable energy than with attracting new customers. The customers will come, finding new locations for wind turbines, for example, is a more pressing problem." Given the protracted legal wrangling that preceded the construction of the Eemmeerdijk project, it is clear that "not every local council will allow the construction of a wind farm," she notes.

Problems of matching green supply and demand are likely to be further exacerbated by the government's recent decision to remove the ecotax (REB) on green electricity, slashing the price differential between green and grey power to some NLG 0.02/kWh. This has already resulted in increased green electricity sales, says Goedmakers. Moreover, provision in the recently adopted electricity act making it possible to oblige consumers to purchase a certain percentage of their power requirements from green sources from 2000 further emphasises the importance of such schemes in national energy policy, she adds. It will inevitably give an added boost to sales in the long term.

MEGA moves

Elsewhere the increasing popularity of green electricity schemes is leading to more positive developments. Maastricht-based utility, MEGA Limburg, operator of one of the most successful green electricity schemes, has commissioned certification agency KEMA to compile a report on possible sites for wind farms in the Netherlands' most southerly province. Although the study is still in progress, MEGA Limburg's Ton Pruijtsen is optimistic that Limburg's first ever wind farm is now a very real possibility.

The 65 gigawatt hours of green electricity sales currently supplied by the utility are mainly derived from hydro electricity. According to Pruijtsen, the move to wind has been motivated both by increasing consumer demand for green power and new technology which makes the development of inland sites economically viable.

With the wind resources of Limburg still undeveloped, initial responses from the local authorities have been very encouraging, says Pruijtsen. To date the local councils in Roermond, Maasbracht, Heel and Haelen have all agreed in principle to the placement of a wind farm -- albeit with the usual planning reservations. Results of the preliminary study are expected shortly.