Sustainable Amsterdam — Ambitious Electric Mobility, District Heating, and Circular Economy Goals

Third of a four-part series on Amsterdam’s efforts to reduce its carbon footprint and become a more sustainable city. 

Cyclists crossing one of Amsterdam’s many bridges. Image by Jorge Royan.

Amsterdam, The Netherlands — How did Amsterdam formulate its ambitious climate and energy planning programs, stealing a march on many other cities?

During a wide-ranging interview last fall, Peter Paul Ekker, spokesman for Amsterdam Alderman Abdeluheb Choho, vice mayor for sustainability, described the city’s ambitious sustainability goals and why Amsterdam is so receptive to innovative climate-protection programs.

Ekker explained to me that Amsterdam has had a municipal climate agency since 2006, long before most other cities, and that same year also embarked on its first intensive studies of climate and energy .

Those studies culminated in a 2010 report, Amsterdam: A Different Energy: 2040 Energy Strategy. Over the next four years, the city council and vice-mayors led the city in creating and implementing a clean energy strategy that included goals for energy efficiency, as well as for solar and wind power.

Fertile Ground for Innovation
Ekker believes Amsterdam has high sustainability aspirations partly because “there’s a lot of creativity and entrepreneurship” in Amsterdam and partly because the city has universities, a high-tech community, and “people with bright ideas.”

“If you come with a new idea” in Amsterdam, Ekker asserts, “everybody is open to it. This is also why the city council has quite unanimously supported working on climate change and climate mitigation.”

Since 2014, the city has begun to hit its stride, scaling up programs and, according to Ekker, focusing on getting results across the board while developing and refining policy instruments.To an observer, the city also appears to be blessed with good leadership.

Winning Popular Support
A big reason why climate mitigation has strong public support in Amsterdam, Ekker explained, is that the municipality rallies support for climate mitigation not by trying to debate the impacts of climate change or scare the public, but by calling its climate policies “sustainability measures” and underscoring their economic and public health benefits.

Municipalities in Amsterdam rally support for sustainability measures by emphasizing their economic and public health benefits. Image by Edwin Van Eis.

“Our analysis is that the public in general doesn’t need convincing on the need for mitigation measures, but it does need examples and solutions on how to become a sustainable economy,” Ekker said.

The city therefore talks about what is technologically possible and cost-effective along with the co-benefits of sound climate policies, including cleaner air, fewer respiratory problems, and a more livable environment.

Thus, for example, the city’s policies on electric vehicles (EVs) are not “climate change-driven,” Ekker notes. Support for those policies is borne of concern about public health.  Of course, the net results benefit the climate, too.

Moving away from fossil fuels also has real economic benefits, and “we are not afraid to celebrate that,” Ekker says. These benefits include attracting large companies, like Tesla, to Amsterdam. The electric auto maker now has its European headquarters in the city, and Ekker attributes this in part to the fact that, “we are frontrunners in electric cars and electric transport.”

Carrots and Sticks: Subsidies and Regulation
Amsterdam is also discouraging the use of inefficient fossil fuel vehicles by establishing restricted “environmental zones” from which older, less efficient vehicles are barred. “Dirty trucks, dirty cars, [and] motorcycles in the future, will not be allowed to enter the city anymore,” Ekker stated.

Apart from imposing progressively tighter regulations on polluting vehicles, the city also provides incentives to encourage the switch to EVs.

“Public transport is going to be totally electric by 2025,” he declared. Some businesses have already opted to have their delivery trucks drive to the edge of the city using fossil fuels and then transfer to an EV because it’s cheaper to enter the city in an EV.  This, Ekker believes, could be a model for other cities.

Amsterdam plans for its public transit to be emission-free by 2025. Image by Jan Oosterhuis.

The city is currently changing from diesel to electric buses and has 40 electric buses on order for delivery within three years. Ultimately, all Amsterdam’s public transport will be emission-free.

By 2025, all the city’s taxis will have to be electric.  The city’s taxi fleet will have gradually worn out by then and been replaced by electric taxis. “Technology is coming to our aid,” Ekker observed.  “In two or three years, you’re going to have a fine Tesla for $35,000 [that will be] comparable to any taxicab that you buy now.” The electric vehicle, however, will be cheaper to maintain and operate than a fuel-burning car.

Amsterdam also has a subsidy program for EVs and provides five or six thousand euros to a business buying an electric van and up to 40,000 to a business buying a large, heavy electric truck.

Amsterdam has a subsidy program to encourage businesses to buy an electric truck.

What motivates people to want an electric vehicle in Amsterdam and the Netherlands? “Even if you don’t believe in climate change,” Ekker notes wryly, “you still can believe in a great Tesla car. . . .”

In addition, EV owners in Amsterdam also get EV tax credits and avoid the increasingly onerous regulations being applied to fossil fuel vehicles in the city. . In fact, those with the dirtiest vehicles will not be granted city parking permits at all.

Finally, fuel costs in the Netherlands and Europe are far higher than in the U.S., which makes EVs even more attractive economically. Gasoline in the Netherlands now costs $1.80 per liter ($6.80 per gallon).

Moreover, as part of a city noise abatement policy, commercial vehicles are not allowed to come into the city center on Sunday, unless they are electric. (Electric vehicles make less noise than fossil fueled vehicles for city center dwellers to endure.)

A Clean and Circular Economy
Cycling is a big part of Amsterdam’s clean transport story. There are more bikes than people in Amsterdam. “More and more we’re biking,” Ekker said, and the city is increasing the number of green bike ways separated from the roadway.

Amsterdammers are also solicitous of their next generation. “All schools will have green roofs, solar panels, [and] good insulation,” Ekker said. Green roofs insulate the building, reducing the need for heating and cooling. They thereby improve air quality along with occupants’ comfort. “It’s a win-win situation.”

The city has a whole set of clean energy targets. For example, it plans to increase the number of households with rooftop solar generators from 5,000 to 80,000 by 2020 while it expands the city’s wind power generating capacity from 67 MW to 85 MW. The challenge Amsterdam faces in this regard is that whereas many residents are interested in solar, relatively few have suitable roofs.

While Amsterdam does plan on increasing the number of solar generators, many residents do not have suitable roofs to install one. Image by Edwin Van Eis.

Since the spring, the city has therefore been working with owners of large factory and commercial roofs to arrange for them to lease their roofs to residents for solar generation. The city has even arranged for the siting of residential solar collectors on the roof of a metro station.

Amsterdam has also become a strong proponent of the “circular economy” once the city realized that it could replace a third of the building materials it used every year by recovering and reusing building materials“But to do that,” Ekker said, “you need to build smart,” by which he means constructing buildings so they can be more easily recovered once the building has reached the end of its useful lifespan.

In addition, all concrete that the city will be using in the future is going to be recycled. That will be “a huge CO2 reduction,” Ekker says. In contracting with developers for buildings in Amsterdam, 30 percent of a prospective project’s rating is based on its sustainability score. High-risk projects get loans from the city’s new 50 million sustainability fund.

Amsterdam is already reusing municipal waste to co-generate heat and power for residents in northern and western Amsterdam. The waste is collected and delivered to a central incinerator with advanced pollution controls. Heat from the plant is distributed to households in large insulated pipes, replacing individual gas furnaces.

Excess heat from a gas-fired power plant on the east side of Amsterdam in Diemen serves residents in the city’s southern and eastern quadrants. Meanwhile, the city plans to create a regionwide heat network, extending from its Tata Steel smelter on the North Sea shore in Ijmuiden 25 km west of Amsterdam to the city of Almere, 25 km east of Amsterdam.

All told, Amsterdam plans to have 102,000 homes on district heating by 2020 and 240,000 by 2040. Geothermal heat sources and surplus heat from urban greenhouses where flowers and vegetables are grown will provide heat to the regional heat-network.

Amsterdam has clearly built a public consensus favoring its ambitious energy and climate program by emphasizing its health and economic benefits.  Rather than focusing on the problem of climate change and arguing about the severity of climate impacts, city leaders chose to focus on the opportunities that ambitious solutions offered, particularly the money that could be saved or earned. “We are really focused on solutions,” Ekker said, “because that’s where we can make an impact.”

*This article was published at The Huffington Post on Aug. 2, 2016

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