Those are the conclusions of major project developers and experts in the run-up to the tenth edition of The Solar Future NL, the annual Dutch solar energy conference. This year, the event will take place on the 17th of May in DeFabrique in Utrecht.
Over the past few years, new solar plants were mostly constructed on former landfills, abandoned industrial and construction sites, dikes and spare land. Many rooftops of houses, parking garages and companies have been covered with solar panels as well. Still, this approach won’t cut it to meet the energy goals for 2050.
"In The Netherlands we’ve got about 22.000 square kilometers worth of agricultural land. To generate significant amounts of solar energy, 10 percent of that land should be used for solar parks."
"In The Netherlands we’ve got about 22.000 square kilometers worth of agricultural land. To generate significant amounts of solar energy, 10 percent of that land should be used for solar parks. That amounts to an area larger than the IJsselmeer, which could yield 750 petajoules of energy,” claim Erik van der Heijden and Boris Hocks of Generation.Energy. Their advisory firm is experienced in identifying suitable locations for solar farms and provides research services to both the national and local governments. According to the duo, the focus of the conversions should be on unproductive agricultural plots that are closely located to residential and corporate structures, roads and/or train infrastructure. However, policies related to this can strongly differ per province. Additional to the right landscape fit, the grid connection possibilities are another major factor.
Amongst agricultural entrepreneurs and farmers there is great interest in solar energy. Both with those that - due to a lack of successors or stricter regulatory conditions - are looking to close up shop, as with farmers and fruiters that want to make part of their land available to solar energy. “Every day I’ve got a farmer on the line that tells me they've got a parcel available for solar panels,” says general director Gerben Smit of Solarfields, which currently has over 1,000 MW of solar parks under development. The developer already completed several projects on disused agricultural land. “If you want to meet the targets, we need to consider farmland. There’s not really a choice in the matter. In addition to infrastructure, housing and commercial development, solar energy is now a set element that needs to be considered in the designation of land,” Smit states.
Marc van Velzen, general director of SolarEnergyWorks, shares this opinion. His compnay has been involved with the prolific solar farms at Shell Moerdijk and SADC in Hoofddorp. “The combination of large scale wind and solar facilities is essential to meeting the targets. Hiding these highly necessary sources of energy generation is a thing of the past, but you do need to make it fit adequately in the existing landscape,” he says.
"The combination of large scale wind and solar facilities is essential to meeting the targets. Hiding these highly necessary sources of energy generation is a thing of the past, but you do need to make it fit adequately in the existing landscape."
Using farmland requires proper coordination with farmers, surrounding stakeholders and municipalities. Possibilities of multi-use of land are also being considered. In Germany there’s an ongoing experiment in which solar panels are fixed upon higher-than-usual structures, thereby creating constructions reminiscent of green houses. These can allow agricultural equipment and vehicles to be utilized underneath the panels, in order to continue agricultural development. Other research efforts are focused on developing (semi) transparent solar panels that would also allow for the efficient growth of crops below them.
Market leader GroenLeven has focused their solar efforts on the agricultural segment since the early beginnings and has a lot of experience with multi-purpose lands, such as parking lots and landfills. The developer mainly focuses on exceptional plots, less fertile lands and areas that are less suitable for agriculture. “We see a lot of things happening with regards to solar parks amongst farmers. Many project developers are jumping into this market, are aggressively hunting for land and oversell with empty promises. Too often those aren’t realized,” says representative Maarten de Groot.
To create more support and move towards the right environmental and societal fit, GroenLeven introduced a so-called “solarfarm-pool”. In this approach, all (willing) agricultural entrepreneurs in a certain area take stock of available land with the right potential and pool those resources together. If a project is realized on (part of) that land, they will be compensated based on the share of land they made available in the pool. Together with the developer they can make a broadly supported proposal to the local municipality. “By collaborating and joining efforts and resources, they increase their chances of actually realizing their envisioned solar farm(s),” De Groot claims.
LTO Netherlands has noticed how developers of solar parks have shifted their focus towards agricultural lands on a large scale, but still prefers that other types of land will be used first. “We understand that it will become necessary at some point, but please let’s stick to the right order. Right now, large swaths of land are being discussed in a fashion that’s just too light hearted,” states Climate & Energy representatiuve Auke Jan Veenstra.
"We understand that it will become necessary at some point, but please let’s stick to the right order. Right now, large swaths of land are being discussed in a fashion that’s just too light hearted,”
He points towards the fact that Dutch farmers are already on the forefront of renewable energy generation and that two-thirds of agricultural entrepreneurs are operating in a climate neutral way. He acknowledges the attractiveness of the proposition that developers are pitching towards farmers and that the proceedings can be a significant addition to their income. Every individual member of their collective is free to consider these proposals. GroenLeven’s “solarfarm-pool” approach can be a step in the right direction according to him. Also multi-purpose landuse can become increasingly attractive and feasible in the future. “But, regrettably, that’s still in the earliest stages of development,” Veenstra concludes.