When in 1998 the energy market was liberalised in the Netherlands, all of the sudden wind turbine owners were free to choose who they wanted to sell their electricity to, just like the energy companies in turn had the right to refuse. This completely changed the energy market.
Axel Posthumus saw an opportunity and started a company to help wind turbine owners renegotiate their contracts. Later on, he became part of the cooperative Windunie. Today Windunie is one of the four largest Dutch renewable energy developers, next to Eneco, Nuon/Vattenfall en Raedthuys. When he started his own company, Green Utility Company, in 1998, Axel Posthumus managed to help a large part of the wind turbine owners renegotiate their contracts. As most of the wind turbines were owned by farmers, united in associations, he got to know the agricultural sector better. At that time there were 350 local energy companies but the idea emerged amongst farmers that the many energy companies would most likely merge into a few large companies that would dictate the price of electricity. They realised that the association structure would no longer suffice if they were to unite against these large energy companies. Some forty farmers from the north of the Netherlands decided to join forces by means of a cooperative. They copied the statutes from the Melkunie cooperative and instead created the Windunie. They asked Posthumus to help the new cooperative sell the electricity generated by its members.
When the Windunie was established, Posthumus created an energy contract and by 2003, the cooperative was covering almost half of the market with this contract. With a growing member base, Windunie started to organise itself better. The company introduced its own energy product. Nowadays it continues to do so but in close cooperation with energy company Greenchoice. Later on, also a trade company and development company were launched. Posthumus: “We noticed that there was still room for more wind energy but not so much anymore for single wind turbines. As a result, some of our members were more or less forced to break down their wind turbine and join a larger wind farm.” Some of those are very large, as is the case with wind farm Zeewolde which comprises of a hundred turbines. Almost all of the farmers from around Zeewolde are joined in this project. This is stretching the limits, he says, ‘the agricultural sector is a strong sector but I think if you go any bigger, it will be hard to stay on the same page.’ ↓
Develop with, and for the community
Windunie members are actual persons or companies but with assets. These assets can be wind, solar or other renewable energy projects. At the moment wind and solar dominate but Posthumus foresees a growing share for new energy systems. The projects have to be of a certain size to qualify for membership. It is, for example, not possible for a private household with rooftop solar panels to join. Windunie does not develop projects for itself. Posthumus elaborates: “We develop with the community and for the community but the project remains in their hands.” As a cooperative, Windunie sometimes does participate in a project ourselves but never as a majority shareholder.
Projects can become member of Windunie from the start. Becoming a member of Windunie provides certain benefits. Posthumus: “We can provide guidance throughout the entire process of planning and building a wind farm, from lobby activities, to arrange the permits, to selling the electricity of a project, activities that most of our members have no experience in themselves. In addition, being a member provides good networking opportunities and a chance to learn from other projects.” All products are offered to members at member rates. For projects that are still in the planning phase, membership is free. They benefit from the competitive prices for products. However, they have no say in the cooperative. This is strictly reserved for operational assets. Membership costs are linked to how much a project is generating. A board supervises the activities of Windunie thus ensuring the interests of the members is safeguarded.
Posthumus: “At the moment we have around 250 members. These members have built up the company to what it is today, offering all the services and products the members need to generate green electricity in a sustainable way.” Whilst Windunie members have traditionally been farmers, Posthumus sees a growing number of renewable energy cooperatives with citizens. “They speak a different language but are all part of the same local community and active in the energy transition. This is key for the future,” he says.
Although citizens show more interest in participating in wind energy, this does not mean wind energy is accepted everywhere. The NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) effect is still an issue. Visual, noise and cast shadow objections make it hard to create social acceptance for onshore wind. Posthumus: “Nowadays, there is general awareness and consensus that we urgently need to work towards a cleaner, more sustainable future. But when it comes to putting this into practise, people rather not have it taking place in their backyards. This goes especially for regions that are not that familiar with wind energy yet.“
However, in some places, opposition takes a whole other, more violent dimension. “We see especially a lot of opposition in the province of Drenthe. Here, opponents do not shy from using violence towards wind farm owners or developers. This could range from sending threatening letters, something we have experienced ourselves, to destruction of machinery used in the fields,” Posthumus tells. A recent action even reached the national news broadcast. Opponents placed asbestos at the railway station of Delfzijl. According to Posthumus, the aggression is taking such disturbing levels that the Government even took this, amongst others, into consideration when deciding not to lower the national terrorism threat level, thus considering the violent actions as terrorist actions. This is a disturbing development as it might prevent farmers or groups of farmers who would otherwise be willing to build a wind turbine or wind farm to proceed with their plans.
So, why do you think this is happening? Posthumus: “When the local governments (provinces and municipalities) do not convey the same message, stand for it and communicate it to their citizens, then things go wrong. And this is what happened in Drenthe. For a long time, the National Government acted like it would push through their decisions no matter what. And even though they never really did, it brought tension amongst provinces and municipalities, with local mayors refusing to execute orders. At some point, former Minister of Economic Affairs, Henk Kamp could not even show his face there anymore. The citizens of the communities are the victims of this.”
He stresses the importance of local community involvement from the very start of a project. Windunie makes this clear to new members. “Without consulting the community a project is bound to fail. They won’t get the permit organised. It is also clearly stated in the Regional Energy Strategies (RES) that a project needs a participation model.” ↓
There is also opposition against wind energy in the provinces of Friesland and Groningen, he adds. This surprises him as it can bring economic benefits to the provinces. “Farmers who generate renewable energy, either by wind or solar, really thrive better economically than those who do not. They have this unique opportunity to generate their own green electricity and sell it. The revenues from selling their electricity is a welcome contribution to that from their agricultural activities.“
For the past years, onshore wind projects have been making more profits. The electricity price is now more favourable and there is less need for subsidy. The quality of the wind turbines have gone up while the price of a wind turbine has gone down. Windunie now also offers funds that provide members with operational projects the opportunity to reinvest some of their revenue in projects of other members.
At the moment, onshore wind energy provides the best revenue per square metre. In the future, Posthumus sees solar energy as the preferred renewable energy in urban areas. In rural areas wind energy will dominate, but he sees opportunities for a combination of wind and solar. He takes the province of Flevoland again as an example. “Here, many wind turbines are installed in a line setup, along ditches. The land between the wind turbines is not useful for agricultural activities anymore but is perfect for placing solar panels. When both the solar panels and wind turbines are then connected to the same connection it makes a perfect combination,” he explains
Electricity as basic necessity
He stresses that we need to act now. “Conventional energy is not endless. The population continues to grow and electricity will become a basic necessity, just like water and air. Our kids’ generation will most likely already see the effects of this. In the Netherlands, we are very good at putting signatures down on everything but in practise we hardly reach the targets. We know the urgency but we do not stand for it. Instead we try to please everybody, the so-called ‘poldering’. We need more decisiveness from the Government. It is an economical and environmental necessity. Luckily, citizens are not accepting this anymore. The lawsuit filed against the state by Urgenda is a good example.”
How is Windunie contributing in making the Government aware of the urgency to act now? Since one year, we are, via Pawex, united in a branch organisation Energie Samen, together with ODE Decentraal, REScoopNL, Hoom, Econobis and HIER Opgewekt. Posthumus: “With Energie Samen we hold a seat at the Electricity table. This table provides input for the Climate agreement. For this Climate Agreement we establihed that 50% of all the energy generated onshore should be in hands of the local community.” Energie Samen also believes in the RES (Regional Energy Strategies) whereby at local level, municipalities and provincial government can decide themselves how to implement the strategies. “The only thing we have not managed to establish in the draft is how to provide the local governments with targets, how to safeguard them and what to do if they are not met,” he tells.
Its long experience has enabled Windunie to work very efficiently. “We have a good team that is experienced in working with environmental and special procedures, including the political and social process a project needs to go through. All our last projects have passed the Council of State without any problems and have been completed within the timeframe.” The next step for Windunie is to get better established via the RES. First, by helping organise the RES and next, help realise the projects that arise from the RES with the final goal to keep most of them in local hands. When asked if Windunie has plans to look at offshore wind, Posthumus is firm: “That’s a different playing field. Windunie is dedicated to onshore wind.”
Interview Axel Posthumus, director Windunie, in Wind Energy Magazine No 1, 2019.