Sustainability is becoming unattractive in greenhouse gardening

They were among the first in the Netherlands: in 2008 the Amerlan brothers of Béjnacker decided to heat their greenhouses using geothermal energy. They wanted to become less dependent on natural gas, because even then its price had risen rapidly – although it could not keep up with the current historically high level.

It wasn’t easy, says Leon Amerlan now. To get geothermal energy, you have to go deep into the ground. They dug more than two kilometers to get enough hot water. It was also a search for suitable technologies and machines. “Now it’s slow.” general knowledge‘, says Amerlan. ‘But we still have to invent a lot ourselves.’

But she succeeded. The installation was put into use in 2010 and the family business renamed itself Ammerlaan The Green Innovator.

Meanwhile, a newer model of the geothermal installation comes to life at Pijnacker, which keeps 6.5 hectares of yucca plants, sansevirias, and Kentia palms at just the right temperature. And more: “We supply hot water to more than five hundred homes, a swimming pool, a school and 75 hectares of greenhouses, from 28 farmers.”

In addition to being a merchant in plants, Ammerlaan is now also a merchant in heat.

stop greening

The Dutch greenhouse horticultural sector, which includes about 3,000 companies, is often described as progressive. high technology. Innovative. It’s full of creative entrepreneurs who are brave and stubborn enough to try it another way – and make good money doing it. Look at Leon Amerlan. In 2020, the company received the Energy Award from the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate.

But it’s just part of the story. The gas crisis painfully illustrates how much of the sector is still dependent on fossil fuels. Agriculture accounts for 7 percent of natural gas consumption in the Netherlands, and greenhouse horticulture makes up the bulk of this sector. About one-fifth of industry’s energy consumption comes from renewable sources or from waste heat, according to the latest edition of the Energy Monitor of Dutch Greenhouse Gardening† The rest comes largely from natural gas.

But while you would expect the greening of greenhouses to accelerate now that the energy transition has begun to unfold, in practice the opposite is often true. Researchers from Wageningen Economic Research concluded last year in the report that for a few years now, it has become less and less attractive for horticulturalists to become more sustainable. Effects of current developments on carbon dioxide forecasts2Greenhouse horticulture emissions 2030

The researchers wrote that enthusiasm for sustainable energy projects among gardeners and investors “turned negatively.” It will be a “tough challenge” to reignite the enthusiasm of entrepreneurs for greening. “Confidence in the future is the key concept when it comes to enthusiasm. Confidence comes by foot and is walked on horseback.”

As a result of these developments, the achievement of climate goals has declined further. ‘Significant’ increase in CO2 forecast2The report says a reduction in 2030 – an important intermediate step towards 2040, as the sector wants to be climate neutral – is essential.

Ammerlaan The Green Innovator grows tropical plants.
Photo by David Van Dam
“We provide hot water to more than five hundred homes, a swimming pool, a school and 75 hectares of greenhouses from 28 farmers,” says Leon Amerlan.
Photo by David Van Dam
David Van Dam pictures

wrong incentives

Reduction in carbon dioxide2Emissions in the greenhouse horticulture sector have stagnated in recent years and emissions have increased slightly in 2020. As a result, the sector has not met its sustainability target for 2020.

how is that possible? There are several reasons for the increase, such as increasing the total area of ​​greenhouses. But there are also “a number of false incentives,” says Pepin Smit of Wageningen Economic Research, one of the authors of the report on emissions from greenhouse horticulture.

Roughly speaking, the gap between sustainable and traditional greenhouse has grown in recent years. Sustainability is getting more expensive. Sustainability is also complex: it is not easy to achieve a zero-gas greenhouse. Geopolitics plays a role, the market plays a role, but that’s partly down to government, says Smit. The sector and its partners want to move from fossil to sustainable. But the government is responsible for the fiscal rules and policies that harm greenhouse farming.”

The biggest sore point has been a much higher tax on electricity for entrepreneurs since 2019. This fee – in full sustainable energy storage – is intended to increase the support pot for sustainability, but is actually an obstacle to the greening of greenhouse horticulture.

Gardeners who buy a lot of electricity note this in their wallets. Like Rob Baan, owner of Koppert Cress, who grows “little vegetables” for restaurants around the world. Years ago, Baan chose to make his greenhouses more sustainable: They store heat in the summer and have LED lighting. Job was an extremist pissed“When I suddenly had to pay a lot for green electricity.

Ban, director of the sector organization Greenhouse Horticulture in the Netherlands and in 2020 Agricultural Entrepreneur of the Year, describes this tax as “a mistake. You punish the early adopters by having a sustainable company that helps pay for the laggards”. And as he likes to say, “You can’t be green if you’re red.”

He decided to operate his own gas facility, which he could also use to generate electricity. “It still works, because the force is badly needed.”

energy sales

The gas installation is also fully functional for other horticultural growers. Heat and energy generated by gas combustion – “Combined Heat and Power”, CHP – is not only for personal use, but also for sale. Because if natural gas is expensive, electricity (which is generated by gas) is also expensive, so it is profitable to sell it. And while horticulturalists already benefit from reduced tax rates on natural gas, they pay absolutely no tax on the gas they use to generate electricity.

“It’s tempting to leave the CHP on,” concludes Martin Blum, of environmental consultancy CE Delft. He has also done many researches on sustainability in greenhouse gardening.

There is indeed something to be said for the CHP. The residual heat comes in handy in the greenhouse, just like the carbon dioxide released2: They use plants for photosynthesis. It is also a flexible way to produce electricity: the CHP can be easily turned on and off.

Bloom says the CHP has only comparative advantages. It’s better than buying gray electricity, but you keep using fossil fuels. This comparative advantage, he says, is evaporating rapidly as the Netherlands’ electricity supply is greened. The CHP no longer “justifies the positive tax situation”.

Blom sees another unfavorable stimulus in common CO2sector ceiling. If the limit is exceeded, all gardeners must pay an additional amount in proportion to the energy consumption. “In theory” that should work, according to a 2020 CE Delft report co-written by Blom. But the system has “too few individual incentives” to be effective. Settlement is also several years behind schedule, undermining the sense of urgency. “It free riderBloom said. “Reducing natural gas consumption is essentially a joint effort, while avoiding the fine is a single benefit.”

The government is now also aware that the sector cap is not working. It was announced last week that it will be phased out in 2025. In addition, only a few farmers are paying for their carbon dioxide.2Emissions via the European Emissions Trading System (ETS). revealed in 2019 Norwegian Refugee Council The government has actively helped dozens of greenhouse gardening companies to evade this system.

Ammerlaan is listed to connect to a large “heating rotor” that connects the two producers to the heat receivers.
Photo by David Van Dam
David Van Dam pictures

heat sickness

What does potted plant grower Leon Amerlan see as the biggest obstacle to sustainability? He doesn’t have to think twice about it. Those around him see the problem as “obtaining permits”. Wageningen Economic Research also concluded. For example, on geothermal projects, the package of requirements has “increased,” the researchers reported. They refer, among other things, to the “social discussion” about the safety of geothermal projects.

Pijnacker is located in the south of the Netherlands, where the Ammerlaan company is located, in an intensive horticultural area called Oostland. The company is listed to connect to a large “heating rotor” that connects producers and heat receivers. “From the port of Rotterdam, through the branching Hague, to the west and east.” Amerlan says the project is hard to get started on. “If all goes well, the first tubes will go into the ground soon.”

He says this has been “haggled” for years by stakeholders, such as the municipality, county and Gasunie. And not all gardeners were pleased. They had to sign up to buy an amount of heat without knowing the price. “And the gas was very cheap.”

This controversy has also erupted over biomass, another alternative energy source frequently used in greenhouse gardening. Therefore, the Council of Ministers decided last Friday to stop the new support for “wood” biomass with immediate effect.

How should greenhouse gardening continue? For the sector as a whole, it “still makes sense” to be climate-neutral by 2040, Blom believes. But then the gardeners, with the support of the government, will have to work. “Heating, geothermal and residual heat: switching to that is the only way to survive.”

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