Given our leading role as financial innovators in the renewable energy market, it was perfectly natural for Triodos Groenfonds to finance the first large-scale floating solar plant in Europe. This floating plant is in Tynaarlo in the north of the Netherlands and is exploited by GroenLeven, a highly experienced solar project developer. In this interview, GroenLeven CEO Roland Pechtold explains the need for innovation to step up the energy transition.

Dual purpose

Big changes have small beginnings. The Netherlands are on the threshold of a huge transition, presenting an unprecedented challenge. From fossil energy sources to renewable power, from centralised to decentralised generation, in the face of an ever-increasing demand for power. Rapidly and in short sentences, Roland Pechtold, CEO of GroenLeven, outlines the dilemmas and the need to take steps forward. “The Netherlands generates less renewable energy than any other country in Europe. We are right at the bottom of the class. That is a disgrace.”

GroenLeven is the market leader in the development of large-scale solar power projects in the Netherlands, specialising in solar farms with a dual purpose. Headquartered in Heerenveen, the company has become a leading player. In Tynaarlo, in the Dutch province of Drenthe, the company last year realised one of the largest floating solar farms in Europe, on a lake owned and created by sand extraction company Roelofs. The 23,000 panels have a capacity of 8.4 megawatts and supply enough power for around 2,300 households.

Subsidy and private finance

The innovative project was made possible by a government subsidy under the Stimulation of Sustainable Energy (SDE) scheme and substantial co-funding by Triodos Groenfonds. “Really great that we received this contribution. This allowed us to realise the solar farm and further develop our activities. The support of investors is very important for our company. A great deal of research needs to be carried out with regard to technical, ecological and social issues and in terms of logistics. We learn from that. Certainly not just yet, but eventually, in the longer run, solar power may no longer need to be subsidised, because we will be able to install increasingly efficient solar farms.”

Roland Pechtold, CEO GroenLeven

Pechtold refers to the development of offshore wind power, which is now no longer dependent on subsidies. The same applies to solar farms that are being constructed in Spain and closer to the equator. Due to the greater number of sunshine hours, solar farms in that part of the world can already break even without subsidies.

For GroenLeven the project in Tynaarlo constitutes an important stepping stone in the process to make the Netherlands fossil free. The company first gained experience with panels on a floating structure by installing an experimental arrangement on a small lake near the Friesian village of Oosterwolde. The special panels let light through, so that plants and animals that live in the water underneath are affected as little as possible. The construction method developed by GroenLeven was tested extensively, in order to ensure that it has no negative impact on the environment but is also able to withstand the impact of wind and waves. “We found that during gales they remain steady as a rock.”

Public support essential

GroenLeven closely monitors the impact on flora and fauna. According to Pechtold, local residents feared that birds such as geese would start avoiding the lakes. But in fact, quite the opposite has happened. The lakes were created as a result of sand extraction and are only partly covered by floating panels. The resulting sheltered areas actually attract waterfowl. The experience gained in Tynaarlo will get a follow-up through the construction of solar farms on a number of lakes near the town of Zwolle. These projects will have a capacity of 42 megawatts. Even bigger floating solar farms beckon.

Triodos Groenfonds finances the first large-scale floating solar plant in Europe.

As Pechtold points out, these are necessary steps in a full transition from power from fossil sources to renewable energy. The founders of GroenLeven realised that public support is essential. Using Google Earth, they searched for locations in the Netherlands where solar farms might serve a dual purpose, for instance rooftops, parking lots, landfill sites, industrial estates and bodies of water. This approach is paying off. Pechtold was appointed as CEO in 2018 and was the company’s 19th employee. The company now has a workforce of 160. “At the moment our portfolio consists of 1,200 rooftop plants and 70 projects.”

The total amount of solar power capacity in the order portfolio equals the power production of three power stations. There is a catch, however. The grid operators have stated that in accordance with current laws and regulations not all the locally generated sustainable power can be fed into the national grid. The grid is not yet robust enough. Pechtold: “There is a risk that a third of our projects cannot be realised in the short term. As a result, our country will not be able to meet the energy targets agreed by the government and we will fall even further behind the rest of Europe. Absurd.” He advocates consultation and pragmatism. “What we need is a joint action plan and a robust policy in order to get the transition going. The grid is closed off exactly in those areas that offer the best opportunities for generating renewable power.”

Call for close cooperation

GroenLeven has already taken the initiative to get all the parties involved. “We are facing a huge challenge. We will definitely not meet the green power objectives for 2020. But let’s at least try and reach the goals that have been agreed for 2030. There is a reason why the energy transition is called just that. I believe that we are going through a shift to a new era. During such periods, no single person has a monopoly on wisdom. We will have to work together.”

Pechtold compares the challenge that our society is facing with running a marathon in the wrong shoes and without a support team handing out water bottles. “The Netherlands is like Singapore on the North Sea. We live in Europe’s most densely populated country. This makes it a huge challenge to generate 90% of our energy requirement from solar and wind power. GroenLeven does not run away from this challenge.” The floating solar farm in Tynaarlo is a very valuable way to gain more expertise. “We have taken an important step in the energy transition process.”

“This project is a great addition to our portfolio and a perfect match with our mission to finance innovation in the renewable energy market”, Angeles Toledo Rodriguez, Triodos Groenfonds fund manager, agrees. “It is also a landmark project for the dual use of scarce space in the Netherlands, just like another project in our portfolio, solar park Avri Solar, which is built on a decommissioned waste dump.”

Explore our impact report ‘Accelerating the energy transition’ to find out more about our role as investor in the energy transition and system transformation. The report presents our 2019 results in a context of numbers and stories and showcases our mission to make money work for positive change.