Netherlands seeks space for solar power

By Catherine HOURS

Everyone is happy on Piet Albers’s farm. His raspberry canes flourish under a shady umbrella of solar panels and in turn energy firm BayWa supplies clean power to 1,200 homes.

In the Netherlands in particular, and Europe in general, the solar power industry faces a conundrum.

The climate and energy targets set by European countries means demand is huge. The big problem is where to find space for solar panels and how to get locals to accept them.

“We’re looking everywhere,” said Maarten De Groot of GroenLeven, the Dutch subsidiary of Germany’s BayWa. He is concentrating on places where solar arrays can provide double functions.

In Albers’s case, the vast expanse of photovoltaic panels installed three metres (10 feet) above his soil both generates green electricity and protects his precious raspberry crop from the sun.

“We saw the summer season getting longer and the fruit was sometimes burning (in the polytunnels)… It’s a forest fruit. It’s not good in direct sunlight,” he explained.

Albers produces more than 200 tonnes of monoculture raspberries a year.

BayWa doesn’t pay him any rent but for the past three years he’s reaped other benefits — more stable temperatures, 25 percent less watering, protection against hailstorms and savings on polytunnel plastic.

Temperatures are forecast to top 37 degrees Celsius (99 degrees Fahrenheit) next week but Albers is unphased.

“If that fruit had been in a polytunnel, I’d have thrown away 10 to 20 percent,” he said.

BayWa, however, has extra costs to bear.

De Groot reeled off a list — the PV panels are not a standard size; they are trickier to maintain than common or garden ground-mounted panels; and they generate less power because they are semi-transparent to let light filter through onto the plants below.

“For these double-function plants to (take off), it will depend on government support,” De Groot told AFP in English.

Agrivoltaics is expanding but such projects are often smaller than ground-mounted solar farms and can generate 15 to 25 percent less revenue.

The sector says all options need to be used.

– Every project has neighbours –

But not all emerging energy solutions need to be costly, BayWa stressed.

Some 50 kilometres (30 miles) from Albers’s fruit farm, it has installed 17 hectares of floating solar panels on a gravel pit lake.

The panels, assembled like pontoons, coverer half the water’s surface.

“Floating panels are a tried and tested option. It’s not at all high-tech,” said Hugo Parant, project manager at BayWa r.e. France.

They require higher initial investment than the ground-mounted alternative but they have advantages — they are quick to assemble, easy to maintain and the water prevents them from overheating so they have a high power yield.

Also floating on the water are a dozen transformers linked to a huge cable that transmits 20,000 volts to a substation supplying around 10,000 homes.

In this case, the power company pays rent to the gravel pit owners but also often sells them carbon-free electricity at a stable price.

The 29.8-megawatt Uivermeertjes Solar PV Park is, according to BayWa, the second largest floating solar farm outside Asia. The largest is also a BayWa project in the Netherlands.

Not everyone is convinced yet, though.

Angler William Peters is concerned about possible changes in the temperature of the water in the thermocline — the layer between the warm surface water and the cooler depths.

“We measure the fish. There is still some growth but we fear there is an influence on the thermocline. We are not sure. We’d like to have the temperature measurements that were promised,” he told BayWa’s representatives.

They sought to reassure him, pointing out that a study on another lake found only a small change in temperature.

“It’s a small country. When you have a project, you always have a neighbour,” De Groot pointed out.

“We really have to think about how to use the space.”

When Europe’s most densely populated country started deploying renewables, it began with wind turbines in the north, which has fewer inhabitants than the rest of the nation.

But now the national electricity grid is oversubscribed, the south is very urbanised and roofs already bristle with PV panels.

Therein lies the challenge. The country, which aims to become carbon neutral by 2050, sources less than 12 percent of its final energy consumption from renewables.

The picture is similar worldwide.

In 2021, wind and solar farms were set up at an unprecedented rate. Yet the world needs to install four times as much every year to keep the planet’s temperature rising by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, according to the International Energy Agency. — Agence France-Presse

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