The plan for a natural gas-free built environment in the Netherlands has two important reasons. Firstly, it is linked to the Dutch government’s decision to halt the extraction of natural gas from the Groningen gas fields and to stop the earthquakes that are associated with it. Secondly, a transition to a natural gas-free environment will contribute to a large-scale reduction of CO2 emissions, and thereby, contribute to the goals of the Dutch Climate Agreement and the international Paris Agreement. The government has bundled these goals into a goal for the built environment, i.e. all Dutch buildings are to be gas-free by 2050. To reach a gas free built environment by 2050, we need to realize 50.000 gas free buildings per year starting 2021. This number will rise to over 200.000 buildings per year before 2030.
There is a big difference between new and existing buildings with regards to making them natural gas-free. New buildings without a connection has become the new standard, with the termination of the obligation to connect to the natural gas network. Only in exceptional cases will new houses be built with a gas connection. New houses also meet stricter insulation requirements, which aim to promote a successful shift towards natural gas-free alternatives. The story is different for existing homes, because the priorities of owner-occupiers, housing corporations, and private landlords play an important role there.
Discussions concerning the built environment, in the context of the Dutch Climate Agreement, have broadly focused on how a natural gas-free Netherlands can be realized. The national government has largely delegated this task to municipalities. In 2019, there are natural gas-free pilots in 27 municipalities. Lessons from these pilots must contribute to an upscaling to 100 natural gas-free neighbourhoods in the coming years. However, the municipalities need support for important choices, such as which natural gas-free techniques can best be applied where, and how residents can be involved in a good way. In addition, municipalities need clarity about instruments, such as financing structures, subsidies and changes in the energy tax, in order to work with natural gas free solutions. These choices must be made at national level by the government. The National Heat Expertise Centre (NEW) has been established to support the municipalities in the technical implementation of their plans to phase out gas. The Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (PBL) uses a model to provide insights into the choice of a specific natural gas-free alternative in a certain neighbourhood. This helps municipalities in shaping their heat vision in 2021; which neighbourhood should switch to which natural gas-free alternative. At the same time, the municipal neighbourhood approach must be in line with the Regional Energy Strategies (RES).
In general, there is still much uncertainty on how to best involve residents in the natural gas-free transition, and where the different alternatives fit best. It is important not to see natural gas-free technologies and the residents’ perspective separately. From a technical point of view, there are two visions: 1) ensure that energy-optimal homes are realized on a large scale in 2050 and 2) opt for technologies that people can pay for. What is missing in both visions is a clear understanding of the technologies that people themselves want. Innovation must be focused on both affordability and attractiveness for residents. Next, there is a need to look at how this fits into the total energy transition. For example, if many people want a heat pump, what does this mean for the electricity grid? Ultimately, most people just want to live comfortably and are generally not interested in the energy input. The wishes of residents differ. Responding to this requires customization. This makes it difficult to design a clear policy. It is important to look for a way to link energy needs and the wishes of the residents. In this respect, a dialogue with residents is needed. The difficulty is that the various parties, such as central government, the municipality, housing corporations and energy companies, that participate in the transition have different interests and that these interests do not necessarily correspond to the wishes of the residents. It is also difficult for parties to look beyond their respective interests, which challenges an integral vision of natural gas-free neighbourhoods.
Addressing the problem in a neutral and objective makes it possible to look at how different wishes can be combined and how knowledge from different domains can be brought together. This type of research is difficult and time-consuming, but it is important because of changing insights about what residents find important. A better understanding of the real motives of households helps to speed up the energy transition.
The market plays an important role in scaling up affordable, good natural gas-free concepts. Residents want to invest a limited amount of time and money in natural gas-free alternatives when simple, ready-made solutions are offered. However, without a clear demand, the construction sector is not ready to invest in offering the required solutions. Additionally, even without assignments for natural gas-free renovations, construction companies currently have more than enough work on regular jobs, such as installing dormer windows or developing new-build homes. For a successful transition to natural gas-free neighbourhoods, stakeholders involved must be prepared to change the way they are used to living. Forcing natural gas-free neighbourhoods is not in the interests of politics or parties involved. We must look for an approach that is acceptable for all parties involved. Housing associations, network operators, energy companies, the Dutch Home owner association (VvEs), all serve a function in daily practice. These parties are not for nothing. The challenge is to find a way to realize natural gas-free neighbourhoods and, at the same time, to retain the value of existing institutions. On the other hand, it is inevitable that such a large transition will create resistance. Resistance and friction are not necessarily bad. They stimulate thinking and thus provides information about what people are afraid of, what people need, and what questions they have. It is important to listen carefully to the objections and fears, to take them seriously and to look for solutions.
Residents want answers to many questions concerning the transition to a natural-gas free neighbourhood. What does the natural gas-free transition mean for me and my house? What do I have to pay? What are the plans for my neighbourhood? Ultimately, the municipality is an important channel for distributing answers to these questions, but the answers must also come partly from the government, assisted by knowledge organizations. At present, there are uncertainties that make it difficult to provide citizens and customers with the desired clarity. It is important that there is clarity about the approach to be taken as quickly as possible. A policy approach will never be perfect in one go. It is also important that we learn from the process and monitor what the impact is. All too often, we see that that policy measures are implemented, and then cancelled or replaced if they do not provide the desired outcomes, instead of taking the time to investigate what is not working and what can be improved on the program to become.