Strategic pillar 1: support for customers in making choices

Renewable energy generation plays a crucial role in building the new energy system. The number of customers generating their own renewable energy has been increasing steadily for several years. This trend continued in 2018, with the number of registered connections with an active feed-in installation in our service area increasing from approximately 190,000 to 271,000 (up 42.6%). This sharp increase is largely down to the affordability of solar panels, improved economic growth and a favourable climate as far as subsidies are concerned.

We enable customers to make choices that are not just good for them, but also for our energy system as a whole. Customers are gaining more and more influence over the energy system. Incentives can encourage them to make choices that not only work out well for them, but also for our energy system as a whole. We therefore need to make it appealing for customers to use energy when there is high demand for capacity, to feed energy back into the grid in times of scarcity and to minimise the burden on the energy network when it is under excessive pressure. Alliander connects supply and demand and helps to make the best social choices for advancing the new energy system. In this context, we work with other parties both within and outside the energy sector. 

Rising number of renewable generation customers

Renewable generation customers

The wind turbines and solar panels in our service area supply sufficient energy to provide some two million households with renewable electricity. At the end of 2018, the amount of renewable generation in the areas where Alliander is active was as follows:

  • solar energy: electricity for 315,000 households

  • combined heat and power: electricity for 848,000 households

  • wind energy: electricity for 673,000 households

  • green gas: gas for 24,000 households

Alliander expects solar energy generating capacity in our service area to increase to six gigawatts over the next few years. This corresponds to more than 8,000 football pitches full of solar panels, or ten large coal-fired power stations. If all the existing plans go ahead, this will require major changes to the existing electricity grids, as these were not originally designed for feeding in renewable electricity on a large scale. In Friesland, bottlenecks already started to occur in our electricity grid in 2018, forcing us to impose transmission restrictions on customers. Given the time it takes to arrange matters such as permits and the shortage of technicians in the Netherlands, ensuring changes are made to the electricity in good time represents a huge challenge.

More government direction is required so that we know what has to be done to the electricity grids, and where and when this work needs to be carried out, at least five years in advance. Thanks to the planning at a provincial level, we already know at an early stage where wind farms will be located, which means we can prepare our network upgrades for wind energy in good time. At the moment, there is no such planning process for solar energy. In the context of solar energy, too, reaching proper agreement at an early stage with all parties involved is important and government direction is also advisable. Under the Regional Energy Strategies (RES), the regions will work with the network operators to determine which tasks need to be carried out, and where. In addition, network operators need to be given opportunities to make advance investments, as otherwise we will have to defer the changes to the electricity grid. Such delays have a negative impact on the required plans for changes to our networks. At the suggestion of the network operators, the upcoming Dutch Climate Agreement will include agreements on anticipatory network expansions, reforming the rules governing connections, and bringing in network operators at an early stage when permits for renewable energy generation are granted.

Matching supply and demand

We can avoid network upgrades by matching supply and demand more effectively, for example by getting customers to reduce their consumption at peak times, when there is a shortage of capacity in the electricity grid, so that the capacity that is made available can be used for other customers. Other possibilities include energy storage, ‘capping’ production peaks during the sunniest hours of the year, installing simpler (non-redundant) connections for local energy generation, and smart design. All of these measures help to keep network investments and lead times down. Some are already possible, but others are still the subject of consultation as they would require changes to legislation and regulations. In 2018, we undertook various activities to improve the matching of supply and demand:

Greater flexibility thanks to flexibility markets

A flexibility market is one such temporary solution that can be used to match energy supply and demand in a flexible manner, for example by shifting the consumption of electricity to a different time. Energy can also be stored temporarily. We are gaining experience in purchasing flexibility in an open flexibility market. In 2018, we organised a flexibility market in Nijmegen-Noord as an alternative to the traditional upgrade. If we had not done so, we would have had to lay a cable. That cable would only have been required until the new distribution substation comes online. The flexibility market requires less public money than the temporary upgrade would. A flexibility market might also provide a good solution for the Zuidplaspolder region in Zuid-Holland, where the network risks becoming congested. The tendering process for businesses that can manage energy consumption in this way was launched during the year under review.

Smart charging of electric transport

In 2018, the provinces of Overijssel and Gelderland decided to increase the number of public charging posts for electric cars by 4,500. At the same time, the provinces launched a pilot project into smart charging behaviour with Enexis and Alliander. The aim of this project is to work out how electric cars can be charged when the demand for electricity is not high, to use renewable energy where possible. This means that electric cars will be charged more quickly when plenty of renewable solar and wind energy is available, and that we can use smart charging to reduce the burden on the network when demand for electricity is high. In this way, we are getting ready to charge millions of electric cars using renewable energy. Moreover, we will make the best possible use of the electricity grid. We will study how this works in practice with car drivers over the next three years.

Cars in Amsterdam feed energy back into the network

In 2018, Alliander, The NewMotion and Enervalis worked together on a project subsidised by the European Commission, in which they installed and connected the first public charging points in the world to not only charge cars, but also feed electricity back into the energy grid for a fee. In future, such vehicle-to-grid technology will allow electric cars to use their storage capacity for everyday electricity consumption when demand is high, turning the charging posts into ‘feed-in points’. The cars can subsequently be recharged when demand for electricity is low. The feed-in points receive information from drivers about when their cars will be used next. In this way, the charging points know when the batteries need to be fully charged. The points run on a system that works out when the battery will feed electricity into the network, using measurements in the network and predictions of the consumption and supply of electricity as a basis. 

FrieslandCampina: ‘We’re no longer waiting on the sidelines’

Farms can play a pivotal role in the energy transition. That is what FrieslandCampina believes in any event. The dairy company’s Solar programme helps farmers to rent, purchase and install subsidised solar panels.

“The way Dutch farms look is changing,” explained Ynte de Vries, Programme Manager of Solar and Jumpstart at FrieslandCampina. “In 2018, the number of dairy farmers participating in our programme increased from 310 to more than 800. As a result, the number of solar panels to be installed doubled to over 800,000. We also noted that wind turbines are becoming more and more popular. If you connect a wind turbine to an anaerobic digester for processing manure, you can have multiple energy sources on a single connection. You need to have a cable, arrange battery storage if necessary, and add a smart control button. If you do this, you’ll soon have entire village running on the energy generated on just one farm. That’s the direction we need to be heading in.” Ynte agrees that this will have a huge impact on the electricity grid. In order for energy to be generated using solar panels, windmills and anaerobic digesters for processing manure, additional cables need to be laid and the underlying network needs to be upgraded. Alliander is making an all-out effort in this area. Despite this, it will also be necessary to look for smart solutions so that the networks do not have to be geared to generation peaks at maximum capacity. Ynte: “That can be achieved by using smaller converters, for instance, or by configuring and remotely controlling those converters in dialogue with the customer. What I like about our relationship with Alliander is that when it comes to solutions, we connect. The solutions come about as a matter of course. FrieslandCampina doesn’t have to push Alliander to coax a solution out of them.”

Many dairy farmers have started installing solar panels and applying for subsidies themselves, but a different method of organisation is required if the energy transition is really to gather momentum. “Simply waiting for an application for a connection to be submitted and then slowly going through the process will not be enough for that,” Ynte explained. It does not help legal requirements and rules still often form a barrier. For example, the requirement that subsidised solar panels are installed on the roof within 18 months has led to planning problems. Ynte believes that the government will allow experiments. “We need to enter that sphere together. Sharing information is crucial. We share the locations of our farmers so that Alliander can identify opportunities for making fast profits. We really appreciate the fact that our two large organisations work together so well. Alliander is our springboard when it comes to making farmers the energy suppliers of the future.”

Prepaid energy

At the beginning of 2018, dozens of households in five major cities started to trial a new prepaid energy service. This service is designed to make households more aware of their energy consumption and offer them additional help so they can avoid being disconnected. Each household buys an energy credit, which they can top up themselves. Alliander, Stedin, Greenchoice, Nuon and Energiebank are collaborating closely in this trial.

We prefer not to disconnect customers in the winter. In this context, we go further than the law requires. The law states that we must stop disconnecting customers if it freezes in De Bilt, the site of the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute, for 48 hours. Every week, we take a look ahead to determine whether the average temperature will be below zero in any 24-hour period. In cases of doubt, we decide in the customer’s favour.

Dilemma: flexibly managing growth in capacity

The strong demand for capacity is attributable to the economic upswing, the energy transition and the usual increase in the number of connections. Although we follow the market and try to make accurate predictions about growth, we have found it difficult to keep up with the rapid pace of growth for the past few years. In practical terms, the demand for greater transmission capacity means that business customers are not getting as large a connection as they would like and that we are therefore unable to satisfy all of the demand from these customers. That is why we look for temporary solutions, such as the flexibility market. Applying flexibility in managing energy flows (congestion management) is already part of the statutory core duty of regional network operators. Although this is currently still an expensive alternative to upgrading, it expected to become less expensive as the flexibility market grows. At the moment, legislation and regulations do not cover any other future applications of flexibility. A solution will need to be found for this if we are to make the most of the opportunities in the area of flexibility. The dilemma we face here is whether to create a flexibility market or to upgrade the network.