The two entrepreneurs have their roots in the polder and have a background in agriculture. Van Woerden used to have an organic arable farm, still runs a trading business in organic products and has served on various boards and committees, while Bouwman is a garden designer, owns a landscaping business that is active countrywide and first and foremost is a visionary businessman. What brought them together was their desire to do something to make the Netherlands more sustainable. An opportunity presented itself on their doorstep, on a construction site near Lelystad.
The test farm that Wageningen University operated there no longer met current requirements. And on top of that, the roofs of the farm buildings contained highly polluting asbestos. Van Woerden and Bouwman came up with a plan that provided for the complete clean-up of the old buildings as well as the construction of a 41 MWp solar park. A crowdfunding initiative allowed the population of Lelystad to participate. “Triodos Groenfonds also provided part of the funding,” says van Woerden. This collaboration proved satisfactory, because work will shortly get underway on two further parks, with a capacity of 40 MW and 10 MW respectively, again with funding from Triodos Groenfonds.
The Solarvation I park and the two new parks will supply enough power for 27,500 households. That equals around 20% of the town’s total power consumption. These are great figures, but Van Woerden and Bouwman feel that they are only drops in the ocean. If the Netherlands is to meet the Paris climate goals to which it has committed itself, more needs to be done. On top of that, according to Van Woerden the willingness to use good agricultural land for the construction of solar parks is diminishing rapidly. He believes that “without dual use, solar on agricultural land is a dead-end road.”
In addition to the successful development of solar parks, Bouwman has started a new company that focuses mainly on innovation. Solarvation is developing modular, mobile solar systems. The installation consists of movable solar panels that fit well with the principles of organic crop rotation. This allows agricultural land to remain productive year-round, while the farmer can at the same time generate sustainable power. “Dual land use is a new development that farmers can immediately derive a lot of benefit from”, believes Bouwman. For the research projects, collaboration is sought with Wageningen University & Research (WUR) and the Aeres agricultural college in the nearby town of Dronten.
The installation is now ready for testing and consists of segments on movable platforms measuring 12 x 20 m. Underneath the panels, crops can grow up to 70 cm high, which is enough for growing white clover or other biodiversity enhancing crops that naturally enrich the soil or for growing onions, carrots, cabbage or spinach. Bouwman: “In order to rotate with the crops being grown, we have designed a ‘plug & play’ system. Plug it in and you're ready to go.”
If the first tests are successful, Bouwman is planning to scale up to 3 hectares by the end of 2021 and ultimately to 200 hectares of agricultural land set up for crop rotation in strips. “We deliver concepts ranging from 1,000 m2 to several hundreds of hectares, depending on the individual farmer’s requirements. Everything we do is bespoke.” The plan also allows for the use of hydrogen electrolysis. “The power grid is the biggest obstacle for large-scale solar power generation in the Netherlands. The distribution network cannot handle it. If the power is converted into hydrogen, farmers may use that as fuel for their tractors, other farming machinery and cooling systems. By this summer we will open our experimental plot to visitors. Within three years we want to be able to offer farmers a solution for future-proof farming.”
In the new research and education centre at the solar park, interested parties, schools, students and researchers can learn about innovations at the interface of farm management, organic arable farming and sustainable power generation.
Perfect fit with Triodos Groenfonds portfolio
Triodos Groenfonds is enthusiastic about the innovative approach taken by Van Woerden and Bouwman. The sustainable investment fund believes that the development of solar parks offers a very good fit with its own portfolio. “Solarvation I has been realised on land that had buildings on it that needed cleaning up. The park was not realised at the cost of productive farmland. We very much encourage such dual use”, explains Energy & Climate Team manager Harold Hofenk. Solarvation II is based on that same concept. For this reason, Triodos Groenfonds will also participate in the construction of the two new parks.
Solarvation Energy's plans to design and test an installation for use in organic farming may make an important contribution to the energy transition in the Netherlands. “In organic farming you need to give the soil some rest to enable it to recover. So if you can use that inactive period to generate solar power that makes a lot of sense,” believes Hofenk. “Ultimately, arable farming must also become at least energy neutral” is his long-term view. “These types of projects are essential to produce enough sustainable power in the Netherlands. Solarvation Energy adding an educational element to its projects is an added bonus. “Triodos has found that there are still too many people who know little about the possibilities that sustainable energy applications have to offer. Providing information about this is essential to further accelerate the energy transition. And thus call a halt to global warming.”
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