This article is part of a series on lobbying activities in the Northern Netherlands.
The energy transition is getting increasing attention in the public debate. Over the last few years, discussions on climate change and how to tackle it have taken place in many countries. Governments studied plans and approved investments to reduce carbon emissions and find alternatives to fossil fuels.
In 2019, the European Union introduced the European Green Deal, a set of policies aiming to make the EU climate neutral – meaning reaching a net-zero emissions balance – by 2050. This ambitious program calls on every country and region to do its part by reviewing existing laws and approving new regulations to encourage the transition to a more sustainable society and economy.
In the Northern Netherlands, local governments and lobbying organizations identified hydrogen as the ideal energy source to drive the energy transition in this region and the rest of the country. Parties, companies and universities are actively advocating for developing a hydrogen-based ecosystem that embraces businesses, households, and public spaces.
The lobbying activity has already achieved significant results: in 2020, the Northern Netherlands became the first region in Europe to receive a subsidy for its so-called Hydrogen Valley, a fully functioning green hydrogen chain spread across the provinces of Groningen, Fryslând, and Drenthe.
The Hydrogen Valley received subsidies for around 90 million euros, 70 of which came from public-private partnerships. The project is called HEAVENN (an acronym for H2 Energy Applications (in) Valley Environments (for) Northern Netherlands) and will be developed through six years. It is coordinated by the lobbying organization Strong Northern Netherlands (SNN) and the New Energy Coalition (NEC), a network of knowledge institutions, businesses, government and NGOs.
Since the discovery of natural gas in the 50s, the Northern Netherlands has become the country’s main energy supplier. Today, the energy sector is the second-largest economic industry in the region, both in terms of supply from renewable sources, jobs, innovation, and knowledge.
The Dutch government decided to halt gas extraction from the Groningen area by 2024. Consequently, the North needs to accelerate the usage of cleaner alternatives and make a sharp turn in its energy industry, taking advantage of the existing pipeline infrastructure.
According to lobbyists from Strong Northern Netherlands, the leading position in the sector – combined with the region’s geographical features – can drive the green transition. Hydrogen can become the main energy source for the North; it can be used to decarbonize some industrial sectors and for energy storage.
Decarbonizing the economy does not come at no cost, as there is a need to preserve existing jobs and infrastructure in the energy extraction sector. SNN advisors explained that hydrogen represents a logical solution because the gas pipelines are already in place, and the region has massive offshore wind potential thanks to its position close to the North Sea. In addition, the seaports could be used to import hydrogen from other places if needed.
Patrick Cnubben, architect of the Hydrogen Valley. In his vision, three sectors would benefit the most from hydrogen: local businesses, mobility, and residential heating. “Regional and national governments need to make a choice. Now it is time to invest not only in pipelines but also smaller applications like mobility,” he said.
Regional and European lobbying
SNN advisors explained that, for the EU, the momentum is now. Since the European Green Deal launch in 2019, international institutions have been actively working on the energy transition, and there have been many proposals to revise regulations.
With its lobbying activity, SNN gathers the needs of local institutions and the private sector to identify what to ask the national and European governments. The aim is twofold: to overcome the financial and regulatory obstacles and make the proposed framework fit the regional perspective and needs.
Lobbyists said that, on the European level, regulations are either not in place or extremely strict and complicated: a simplification would make it easier for investors and promoters to get their projects off the ground. From the local perspective, it is important to collect all the inputs from every player involved and then build a comprehensive position of each interest.
According to Cnubben, the Northern Netherlands should become “even more visible” in Brussels. “Everyone must understand that this is the energy region, that we are the first, maybe not the biggest, but definitely the smartest in this field,” Cnubben said, suggesting to nominate a Hydrogen Ambassador – “not necessarily a politician” – who sits at every table of negotiation and everyone recognizes.
Cnubben said it is necessary to increase the pressure on the Dutch government. “We require solid propositions from the three northern provinces to the national Government to put hydrogen and energy as high as possible on the political agenda, to keep the sense of urgency on this matter and increase the funding for our Hydrogen Valley.”
Tjisse Stelpstra, Regional Minister for Energy at Provincie Drenthe, agrees with this vision. “As regional governments, our primary responsibility is to facilitate projects and markets. We do so by providing public co-financing, by acting as a launching customer in certain cases, for example with hydrogen buses,” Stelpstra said. The Regional Minister described how the local governments bring their experience to the EU and advocate for policies conducive to hydrogen technology deployment. “We are co-leader of the EU Hydrogen Valleys partnership and an active member and one of the founding regions of the Hydrogen Europe Regional Pillar. We also increasingly work with partners across the border in Germany on hydrogen projects,” Stelpstra explained.
Read also: Lobbying for the North: Efforts to improve railways are working
SNN and the New Energy Coalition agree that the Northern Netherlands does not need money merely because it “deserves it” for the gas extracted over the last decades. Instead, both organizations stressed the importance of the region’s long-term view, which allows for deploying its projects fast.
HEAVENN is an example of this approach. It aims to achieve and share a different economic model based on cooperation between regional governments, municipalities, the private sector and academia. The promoters describe HEAVENN as a well-integrated project with different value chains and multiple applications: mobility, industrial, and households. The concept is based on deploying and integrating existing and planned project clusters across six locations in the Northern Netherlands: Eemshaven, Delfzijl, Zuidwending, Emmen, Hoogeveen and Groningen.
This way, HEAVENN brings together big projects that take time to realise and smaller projects that are easier to implement and produce concrete results in the short term. SNN mentioned the Waterstofhuis (Tiny Hydrogen House in English) in Hoogeveen, and the new hydrogen refuelling station in Emmen that opened last year, two already completed projects the citizens can benefit from.
Local marketing, global visibility
Lobbying is important to get projects off the ground, but the regional government also need support from the local community. On this matter, SNN and NEC share the same opinion, mentioning the importance of increasing the visibility of the Hydrogen Valley as a potential marketing and tourism driver.
“Giving more funds to the northern provinces would make this region more attractive,” Cnubben said. In turn, this cycle would increase tourism and other sectors. “Local governments should be propositive and tell The Hague: ‘This is what I can offer to our country, but I need your support’. Everyone in the region needs to realize that we are one of the key players in the current and future energy challenges,” he continued.
Cnubben mentioned the Groningen Hydrogen Capital initiative as an example of a marketing operation that helps position the North as a global frontrunner in the hydrogen economy. Other initiatives should include events to explain how the hydrogen transition works and how people would benefit from it.
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