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How to get it flat wrong: The Netherlands way

In the space of 15 years, the Dutch renewables industry went from leading light to bit player, yet offshore wind is now giving the country a second chance.

If it is true that nothing is more expensive in life than a missed opportunity, then when it comes to green energy, The Netherlands faces a nasty bill.

As the inevitability of the need for renewable energy presses ever more firmly upon the minds of governments, the Dutch can only look in the mirror and wonder what happened.

After all, The Netherlands is synonymous in the minds of many with its picturesque windmills. Their builders were forced to harness the power of the wind rather than constructing water mills as their country's notoriously flat landscape takes the sting out of running water.

There are few similarities between the old mills, which utilised canvas sails and had to be turned by hand to face the wind, and the modern steel giants of today. Yet as late as the 1990s, Dutch entrepreneurs remained at the cutting edge of the wind turbine and photovoltaic (PV) industries, thanks to the country's fat subsidies for energy and environmental research.

Close to Germany and Denmark, both titans of renewable energy, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that The Netherlands is something of a laggard. Despite its early technological lead, it has no major turbine-makers, and its solar sector is composed primarily of small- to mid-sizedownstream players making products for the German market.

So what happened to Dutch renewables? There has been no shortage of woeful self-reflection.

"I could give you a stack of PhD papers written on this topic," says Kees Hummelen, a pioneer in the field of plastic PV applications in the 1990s, and now a chemistry professor at the University of Groningen. "Ten, 15 years ago, the Dutch were at the forefront of development in the PV industry. This is where it was happening," he says. "I can't tell you how disappointing it is that despite all that innovation, we somehow wound up with no major PV companies." Hummelen says that the politics of September 11 played an important - and often unrecog-nised - role in the Dutch government's decision to pull the plug on subsidies for renewables at exactly the point in the PV industry's evolution where support should have been stepped up.

"In addition to the economic impact, 9/11 led to a huge swing to the right politically in this country," he says. "Suddenly the whole atmosphere changed, and the government had different priorities than solar energy."

The government has also neglected the industrial aspect of the PV industry, preferring instead to nurture the notion of a 'knowledge economy', says Frans van den Heuvel, chief executive of Scheuten Solar, one of the largest remaining Dutch PV firms.

"If you want to make PV modules, you need a factory. And when you have options like East Germany or Oregon [with generous subsidies], it just does not make sense to build anything here," van den Huevel says. "The government is just not supportive enough." The story is similar for wind energy. In the 1990s, Dutch-made turbines could compete with any- thing coming out of Denmark, Germany or Spain. Industry figures point to two reasons why there is no Dutch equivalent to Vestas or Gamesa today.

First, the Dutch turbine industry embraced the two-bladed turbine, still commonly seen across the Dutch countryside. Their reasons were valid: Two-bladed machines are cheaper to make, and easier to install. However, they have one major problem: Their appearance. According to Theo de Lange, head of wind at the country's Energy Research Centre, two-bladed machines appear "choppier and more nervous" on the horizon than three-bladed turbines, which appear to spin more smoothly. Sometimes aesthetics is everything, and the three- bladed design won the day.

Second, as with PV, the Dutch government failed to spark a domestic market for turbines through its 'flashlight' subsidies - or incentives that were repeatedly flicked on and off at the whim of politicians.

Compared with the Danes, Dutch politicians bungled the process of establishing a viable turbine industry, explains de Lange.

"The Dutch have always been very keen to come up with new ideas and concepts for wind turbines. In contrast, the Danes basically came up with one concept and threw all their resources into developing and commercialising it," he says. "We divided our energy and resources too much." Thankfully, these days there is a newfound appreciation for renewable energy in The Netherlands, driven home by the commercial potential of offshore wind, and knowledge of the catastrophic potential of climate change on a country that largely sits below sea level.

In 2007, Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende brought in a new environment minister, Jacqueline Cramer, with a well-known background as an environmental activist. Where previous ministers dithered, Cramer immediately began rattling her sabre at Dutch power companies, and has promised to force them to increase their renewables portfolios. Some, such as Eneco, appear to be paying attention.

In 2008, the government implemented a new green-energy subsidy, the SDE, that is seen as a huge improvement over its predecessor. Whether it goes far enough remains to be seen.

There are few second chances in life, and renewables may be seen as 'the one that got away' for the Dutch. However, if opportunity does come knocking a second time - as some feel it has in the form of offshore wind - the Dutch will be ready to pounce.