The world is going through historic transitions, a global shift of energy, transportation, and consumption that will impact every aspect of our lives, but is that not the norm and could we learn from De Nederlandse aardgastransiti (“the Netherlands natural gas transition“) in the 1960s?
Humanity has not always used petroleum, natural gas, and coal as its dominant energy sources. It transitioned from wood to coal, but that transition took a long time. What can we learn from these historical transitions to effectively deal with the modern energy transition? The author, Sven Ringelberg, natural gas-free project consultant and entrepreneur behind Simpel Subsidie, wrote his book De Nederlandse aardgastransitie: Lessen voor de De Nederlandse aardgastransitie, or Dutch natural gas transition: Lessons for the Dutch natural gas transition, which looks at the shift from coal to gas for space heating in the Netherlands in the 1960s and the lessons that we could take from this transition that took under 10 years. The book is published in Dutch by Eburon.
The Netherlands transition from coal for space heating to natural gas compared to the world transition from fossil fuels for heating, power, transport, and industrial processes might seem like comparing apple and oranges, but the energy transition is happening on multiple fronts at multiple scales. This book is primarily aimed at those thinking about the Netherlands and their current “energietransitie” away from natural gas and towards renewable energy, but all countries are facing their own energy transition and this book offers interesting insights into how on a country level the energy transition can be done. And it comes in a delightful, well-written package.
The current energietransitie in the Netherlands with projects and the creation of gas-free neighbourhoods, increasing insulation, and expanding renewable energy has a parallel with the 1960s energy transition.
Natural Gas and Glittering Nuclear Future
In 1959, the Netherlands discovered a massive gas pocket near Slochteren. The company that discovered it and the Dutch government negotiated, and 10 years later, a country that had normally only heated one room in its homes with coal had converted the majority of its cooking and heating to natural gas, and had introduced more widespread central heating.
This rapid deployment of natural gas is explored in depth in the book, from the negotiations and the reasoning behind it, including one of the main drivers and assumptions of the government at the time. In the 1960s, it was expected that nuclear power would be the future and that if the gas supply was not quickly developed and exploited, it would be hard to recoup the investment, so a plan was created to quickly develop and exploit the natural gas energy source that was expected to last 30 years. Gasunie, a company that was a public-private partnership, encouraged gas use with regressive tariffs. With the tariffs, gas got less expensive the more people used.
Something in the Air
In the 1960s, the marketing for natural gas was about the benefits of using more gas the cosiness and luxury of heat, but in the 1970s, things changed. The Club of Rome publishing the Limits of Growth in 1972 and the oil crisis in 1973 changed the focus from using as much as possible to saving as much as possible.
The book goes into detail about this change of focus and the results, including a focus on more insulation and how gas was promoted.
The domestic heating and cooking situation in the 1950s Netherlands was split between multiple types — electric, city gas, coal, and oil. Each had its advantages and disadvantages, but town gas was dominant in cooking and coal was dominant in space heating — but this space heating was limited to the living room due to cost. In the book, Sven discusses how the post-war Netherlands was dealing with the issues of destroyed housing and sub-standard housing and worked to resolve this issue, but rising social standards had created a rising desire for more comfortable central heated homes, and while propaganda for coal talked about the comfortable living room stove, the negatives of coal, oil, town gas, and electric were well known to the users. Natural gas was abundant, cheap, cleaner, and could use the existing town gas network, which created an opportunity for natural gas to become a widespread heat and energy source if properly planned.
Year of Silence
Furthermore, the government benefited from revenue that allowed it to spend on education, infrastructure, and social welfare without tax burden, but after the initial discovery in Slochteren, the discovery was hardly reported on beyond the initial reports of a discovery. Sven Ringelberg discussed the reasons behind the “silence of Slochteren” and how the deal was not nationalization but also not privatization. The details of this arrangement included Shell, Esso, and government entities.
The deal between the companies, national government departments, and city municipalities outlined the whole planned transition, from pricing, infrastructure, marketing materials, and the roles of each player in the transition. Sven Ringelberg goes into deep detail about this planning process and each part of the transition, from laying the large backbone of natural gas pipelines to transferring the gas from Slochteren to the municipalities, to the process of switching neighbourhoods to natural gas and retrofitting old town gas stoves.
Lessons to Learn from a 20th-Century Transition for the 21st-Century Transition
According to Sven Ringelberg, this quick (10 years) and somewhat painless transition was helped by a number of factors. One key factor was leadership from the central government that shaped the goals and provided the resources from key partners and agencies to promptly design and plan the transition, which is contrasted against what’s happening now in the Netherlands in 2021, in which municipal governments are tasked with this job but where they lack the resources and might only have “one and a half men and a horse’s head” to create pilots. The fragmentation of responsibilities and resources has led to a lack of standardization (which increases costs) and less momentum towards the goal.
Sven Ringelberg discusses how focusing on financial benefits might be the wrong route to people choosing to go gas-free, that putting a price on something does not always lead to buy-in from the public, but focus on the non-financial benefits that people get from a gas-free home is key, such as comfort or reducing your impact on the environment. This aspect will impact many customer-facing transitions, like the move from fossil fuel vehicles to electric vehicles.
Sven Ringelberg has managed to turn a subject that could have easily been a dry, dusty, academic read into a very engaging and informative read. The book has diagrams and tables of key statics, but also anecdotes — from Pinkie from coal propaganda to Kees the gas dog. The book provides a rear-view mirror to contemplate what has taken us to here and what might be needed to keep driving towards a better future.
For now only available in Dutch, this is a much-needed addition to energy transition literature that readers from around the world could learn lessons from.
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