August 12th, 2014

 

Me: “I am interested in questions related to energy transition in Amsterdam! Emerging energies like wind power, infrastructure, policies – in the city.

X.: “If you are interested in that topic, you know, it’s all about talking! In Amsterdam we like to talk!

K.: “Well, he is kidding, but it is like that. We talk a lot but … .

Today I met very active and insider persons from within the renewable energy business. I learnt that there are really a lot of topics to talk about. Indeed, it’s all about talking. That is exactly the situation the anthropologist likes: having “something” to talk about with individuals. But on the other hand, and that drives some entrepreneurs crazy, the never-ending process of talking is a barrier for good-practice and making money indeed. Politicians, a variety of administration actors on different levels, engineers with backgrounds like from physics, data management, logistics and renewable energy technologies, and a lot of activists with different motivations to have influence in the question of energy transition – they all want to talk about something! For actors being active in the business of renewable energies it is hard if a small company, often with less than 10 employees, has to wait for results in the long process of talking. It makes project development so slow!

I also learned today, that big projects in the process of energy transition like “Amsterdam Smart City” (ASC) work like containers. They are a kind of umbrella that link (associate) a huge variety of actors, policies, technologies, things, places and not the least people. Looking to the well maintained website of ASC uncovers how many different projects, start-ups, well established companies, ideas, neighbourhood projects and other things related to energy transition ASC “contains” – in the real meaning of the word. On the European level there are a lot of this huge projects. One that was mentioned today by one of the persons I was talking to today. It is the European E-Harbour project. But I also was told today how important it is to look closely into the containers to see if a project related to ASC is in practice or not.

R.: “You know, Amsterdam is good in dressing in the window, but nobody cares what is behind the window!

Well, “what he wanted to say with that metaphor”, I was asking myself. What came out is how important active actors from within energy transition are self-critical. They said, that with ASC, Amsterdam became very famous on national and international level. Apart from all critics, on the local level a lot of things happened in past and are active still. Later in my case study I will talk with persons who are running a neighborhood project, which is related to renewable energy. My impression at this early point of my research is that there is a wide-scale network of small-scale companies / micro-projects involved in energy transition. Persons working in that field have diverse backgrounds. Diverse as with different university degrees in disciplines as heterogeneous as philosophy, geography, engineering, economics, biology, to mention just a few. But also as diverse as with a variety of other professional and personal backgrounds.

R.: “You know, in the past I worked as a researcher for a big project connected to the university. 18 people had been working for this research department. It was about supply-demand-matching.

Nearly from one day to another the department was closed because of missing founding money.

R.: “It was all about money at that time. After closing the department there would have been only a few persons left at the university. So we decided to think about commercializing our knowledge. In that sector, it was anyway the time of commercialization.

Together with five other ex-colleagues they founded a small company concerned with supply-demand-matching. The small-scale company developed products that help to reduce energy consumption in buildings. Concerning energy transition processes this is an important aspect because the products developed have a focus on the real energy demand. The whole process of giving rise for renewable energy is multi-dimensional. Energy production is one important aspect, but also energy demand and consumption are crucial. And there is also the economic point of view – as I learned it today.

A big problem for the mushrooming network of small companies, consultancies and entrepreneurs is the slow working administration as well as the time consuming “talking”.

R.: “The problem is that clients want things to happen fast. But planning and paying is slow. Sometimes we are struggling to exist!

The fight to exist in a dense network, that energy transition associates, is a very familiar practice for many actors in that field. X. told me he had a company working with solar energy. It was in another country where he was responsible for a solar farm. But the financial crisis and local problems with a corrupt administration forced him to close his company. Now he works as consultant in the Netherlands. It makes him a bit more independent from things that don’t work. As consultant he combines his knowledge of having runed his own company in the past as well as using his knowledge of being a geographer. That enables him to use and apply important tools of (market) research. So he is able to offer his knowledge on the market. But he is also a creative developer of technical solutions.

X.: “All you need is a mother ship and a baby ship!

Me: “Really?

X.: “ Yes, you know, as long as I can think I used to live on a houseboat. In the early years I had no connection to any infrastructure. Well, stop! That’s not right! I had a telephone.

Because of that reason he started to think how to produce own energy. He started to put photovoltaic panels on the top of his houseboat – that he emotionally calls mother-ship. During daytime the panels produce energy but that doesn’t work for the night. So he was looking for a solution to store the energy and/or sell it to the grid – it would be the best if there is a flexible model of “sharing” between the energy producer and the grid company. An important step towards being more autonomous was to buy a “baby-ship”. A lot of houseboats in Amsterdam do have a long-boat. X. used it to store a big battery on it, as well as he can use it to travel in the canal-system of Amsterdam.

X.: “ When I am at home I just plug the baby-ship to the mother-ship. And that’s it! As long as my photovoltaic panels produce energy it is stored in the battery on the baby-ship. When this loads up full I will sell to a certain degree my overproduction to the grid company.

Again, at this point, the problem of what happens and who pays the “price” for overproduction, popped up. The problem is related to the way how energy is produced with renewable resources like wind, water and sun. As these resources are not as calculable in terms of their availability, producers can’t forecast the exact energy output in a short period of time. At that point local infrastructure on different levels is not “smart” although the idea of the mother-ship as micro energy production facility and the baby-ship as store and hub of energy transfer is brilliant.

X.: “They should work with such local approaches instead of wanting to have big deals with huge Asian car producers. Instead of dreaming and talking let’s use the local infrastructure that is still there – and indeed needs to be further developed!

But there are other interesting stories that came up today. One reflects that citizens are active in using renewable energies to make a contribution to energy transition – and indeed to make some money. Someone told me that citizens manage themselves according their economic perspective as well as political one. The result of that are “economic cooperations” that work like companies. K. told me that he even thinks further and has a lot of interest in “green economy” in general. Such developments also can be used for a smart grid in renewable energy production in Amsterdam. But a lot needs to be done and changed in the future.

K.: “Imaging, look, … now they started ‘socialising the costs of overproduction’! come on! That’s the problem. Who should pay the costs?

What K. is directing with this expression is the problem of overproduction. Natural resources like wind or sun vary in availability. Sometimes more energy can be produced in a certain time than allowed in the contract with the grid company. In other periods the warranted amount of energy is a bit negative. In general it equals, but only over more flexible periods of time. Intelligent meters are on the market that could help to make the grid smarter. At the one hand the problem of overproduction is technically not a problem if the electric infrastructure is well maintained. It would not be a big deal! But at the other hand small and creative companies who are testing new ways of energy production and consumption suffer from the extra fees they should pay for the problem of overproduction. It kills innovative development.

Later on that day I had another perceptual walk in the city centre. My aim was to find some of Amsterdam’s plug-in and energy-charging points for e-cars. So far I found no systematics how this points are installed in the city area.

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