AMS AMS Science for the City #6: Energy & Spatial Changes – Editorial

During AMS Science for the City #6 we delved into the dynamics and explored possible solutions for the sustainable energy transition and we examined some of the spatial, social and technological issues that will affect the city of Amsterdam, its metropolitan area and the Netherlands as a whole. A wide range of experts from the energy sector presented their work and participated in round table discussions.

The transition towards a low-carbon future is accelerating across all sectors in The Netherlands. But there are many questions still unanswered. Are we pursuing the right strategies? How much space will the transition to sustainable energy require? Will we able to accommodate this in our densely populated country? And what is the impact of this transition on the living environment in terms of spatial planning in urban and rural landscapes?

 In this editorial by Jenny Zonneveld you can read some of the highlights of the evening. Recording of the evening is available here.  

What did the experts conclude?
By the end of the evening it was clear that there is still much work to do if Amsterdam and the Amsterdam Metropolitan Area (AMA) is to become energy neutral or even climate neutral by 2040. Yet, all those who participated in the debate were positive about the opportunities for the transition to sustainable energy and indicated that decisions still have to be made on the key issues.

Understand energy density
Sven Stremke (Associate professor of Landscape Architecture, Wageningen University & Research, Principal Investigator AMS Institute) kicked off the evening with a NASA video explaining that we simply do not have the space to allow all the CO2 we generate together to be sequestrated naturally. He explained the concept of energy density and the tensions involved 3 –relatively little space is required to generate energy from fossil fuel, compared to the vast acreages required to generate the same quantity of energy from renewable sources such as wind turbines and PV installations. Based on a spatial study on the potential of sustainalble energy production Marco Broekman (Architect, urban planner) concurred that 100% energy neutrality within the AMA by 2040 is not realistic due to spatial constraints. So, we are dealing with high set goals. Moreover, it shows this issue demands an integral approach, as it cannot be solved within the boundaries of the city.

Shell says, ‘make it bigger’
During the round table discussion, Ewald Breunesse (Manager Energy Transition, Shell) explained that at Shell they have a motto, ‘if you can’t solve the problem, make it bigger’. He cited the example of the Siena Region in Italy, not the city of Siena itself, that now has an EU certificate endorsing it as a climate neutral region. To put this into perspective with Amsterdam and the Netherlands, the Siena Region has an average population density of 100 people per square kilometre whereas the average in the Netherlands is 400 per km2 and in Amsterdam, this is 5000 per km2. Understandably, the spatial considerations in Italy and in the Siena Region in particular are quite different to those in Amsterdam and the Netherlands. Other spatial considerations highlighted include balancing land use for residential and commercial purposes with food production and recreation, which is an essential part of any liveable environment.

Raise awareness
Another key issue raised during the evening was the need for communication regarding energy transition. Talking about alternative sources of energy will raise awareness of the problems in phasing out fossil fuel and will encourage innovation. The general public is afraid of the unknown; for most citizens, 2040 is still a long way off and many home owners have no idea how they will heat their homes without gas.

Embrace diversity on regional level
Energy transition is viable almost everywhere and the experts agreed there is no single solution for the entire Amsterdam Metropolitan Area (AMA). They agreed on the need to embrace diversity and apply different solutions in different neighbourhoods depending on their character. It’s relatively easy for home owners to install PV on their roof, but what if you live in a listed building or you don’t own your home? Central government and the municipality must take measures to encourage individual initiatives and make exceptions regarding transition and neutrality for areas of historical importance where solar panels will destroy the character of the neighbourhood.

Andy van den Dobbelsteen also highlighted that there must be different solutions according to the nature of the neighbourhood. The mixture of solutions will include top down and bottom up projects. The biggest challenge for older properties is heating, this will need to be solved on a larger, top down scale. The roadmap also dictates that new properties should be energy neutral or energy positive, while work continues on transforming the older properties in the city to reach the 2040 goals.

Great savings potential
There are great gains to be made and much work to do when it comes to energy saving, energy storage and energy transport. Naturally, we must continue to save energy, or rather reduce consumption, wherever we can. Still, the biggest consumers – and thus the biggest potential for reducing energy usage, lies with the indursry.

But what about storing power?
In the future, there could be different scenarios for household with a PV installation. Perhaps they’ll have their own battery to store electricity generated during the day for use after sundown. Or may be there will be a neighbourhood based storing system. In any case, Marten Boekelo (Wageningen University & Research) talked about his research into off-grid power supply, in which neighbouring houses could are linked in their own mini-grid to even out peak demand among themselves and to supply back to the main grid in a controlled manner as power is required.

Look underground
For heat storage, we must look deep underground – Martin Bloemendal (TU Delft) explained about the Aquifer Thermal Energy Storage (ATES) project. More buildings want to use ATES for cooling in the summer and heating in the winter. By enabling the heat storage cells in the aquifer to communicate, energy usage can be anticipated using a predictive control model to reduce uncertainty.

For more information on these projects, see

Roadmap to 2040
Finally, there was much discussion about the route to achieving the transition to energy neutrality by 2040. Andy van den Dobbelsteen (Prof climate design & sustainability TU Delft, and Principal Investigator at AMS Institute), explained about the City-zen project that is developing a roadmap towards the 2040 goals. This brings together a catalogue of potential measures to take and a book of inspiration. Andy also explained the route from becoming CO2 neutral to energy neutral, at which stage a small amount of fossil fuel will still be used. As the transition continues, energy provision will be fossil-free and eventually become circular.

No single solution
Amsterdam is ambitious and wants to be the frontrunner in the race to achieving the Paris climate goals by 2040. A good start has been made and there is an initial roadmap. Because new insights into energy transition and the spatial implications are emerging continually, there is no single solution. The roadmap will require regular updates and it is clear that the spatial dimension will play an increasingly dominant role. And for this reason, central government and municipalities must make well-founded policy choices.