Necessity is the mother of invention, and for hundreds of years the Netherlands’ need to stay above water has fuelled its drive for innovation. Today, the country is actively pursuing a sustainable energy policy, and Noord-Holland is at the heart of the science behind it.

Experts estimate that 10% to 15% of the Netherlands’ energy needs can be met by hydroelectric power by 2030. Noord-Holland tidal energy specialist Tocardo is reckoned to be among the top three underwater turbine designers and producers globally, and plans to export 80% of its output by next year. “Our turbines, because of their small scale, are suitable for rivers in countries such as Myanmar, Nepal and India, which desperately need a stable energy supply. And demand is increasing,” says Tocardo sales manager Albert-Jan van der Wal.

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Meanwhile, about 300 wind turbines in Noord-Holland generate a total output of 343 megawatts, with a goal of 685.5 megawatts of wind energy by 2020. These onshore projects have spurred offshore wind power development, creating jobs and attracting businesses to the area. Noord-Holland is also home to several geothermal wells, but the uncertainty involved in tapping them means they are deemed high risk for investors. Wind power also faces problems in terms of energy storage and predictability, an issue the companies hope to address through continued innovation.

Energy Innovation Park

In the province of Alkmaar lies Noord-Holland's Energy Innovation Park, a growing cluster of SMEs and multinationals that has become an incubator for sustainable energy development. At its heart is Abu Dhabi-based energy company TAQA, which runs Europe’s largest open-access seasonal gas store. TAQA built its underground storage facility in the area’s depleted Bergermeer gas reservoir, a unique part of Noord-Holland’s geological environment. Offering 4.1 billion cubic metres of seasonal storage capacity for the north-west European gas market, TAQA is a crucial component in the Noord-Holland gas hub.

“People entrust billions of euros-worth of gas to us, so this region is crucial in that we have the geography for these facilities but also people with decades of experience in the industry,” says TAQA business development manager Bas Froon.  

Petten Research Park in Noord-Holland is home to the Energy Research Centre of the Netherlands (ECN), one of Europe’s largest energy R&D institutes and the Nuclear Research and Consultancy Group (NRG), the largest manufacturer of radioactive isotopes for medical use in Europe. NRG runs the nuclear reactors and produces one-third of the world’s isotopes, providing treatment for 24,000 cancer patients each day.

“We’re far enough from the busy parts of the country but close enough to attract highly skilled employees, and the North Sea provides an exit for our cooling waters,” says NRG managing director Niels Unger. “Our customers require timely delivery by road and air. We have excellent logistics and transport infrastructure all nearby.”

Safety regulations pose problems for private investment into nuclear research, however. New rules are needed to open it up to the private sector and SMEs, and funding needs are huge. “We want to run our current installations for another 10 to 12 years, but to do that safely and reliably, we need to invest,” says Mr Unger. The Dutch government and the province of Noord-Holland have provided an €80m loan to begin funding for NRG’s new Pallas high-flux reactor, taking on the risk where private investors were more hesitant. Pallas will need €650m to €850m in investment over the next 40 years.

Noord-Holland’s commitment to sustainable energy is a driving force for the Netherlands, with a knock-on effect on Europe and beyond. Its geographical advantage, access to talent, logistical infrastructure, knowledge hubs and unique cluster of smart industries prove that big change can indeed come from a small source.