Dilemmas and lessons learned

Alliander always aims to perform its duties and carry out its activities to the best of its ability. In so doing, we are faced with dilemmas that can influence the way we plan and are able to carry out our work. Moreover, certain incidents, developments and events can have unforeseen consequences for our day-to-day work. By being aware of this and learning from it, we can continue to enhance the quality of our company. In this chapter, we present a few of the dilemmas and events we had to deal with in 2021.

Dilemma 1: First come, first served; or social desirability to determine the order of connecting customers

It is a social dilemma which became more and more urgent in 2021. Customers throughout our service area are increasingly having to contend with scarcity on the electricity grid. In most cases this concerns the feed-in of electricity generated from renewable sources (solar and wind). But it is also starting to affect the supply of electricity to high-volume customers. We expect that the grid will reach its maximum capacity in even more places in the coming years and that not only businesses and institutions, but also consumers will notice the effects of this. For example, we see housing estates being built in areas where there is scarcity. This may mean that social amenities such as healthcare centres, schools and supermarkets cannot be connected, whereas such amenities are crucial for the quality of life in these residential areas. However, when distributing the limited capacity on the network, the current law states that we have to deal with applications for connections without discriminating and in the order in which they come in (first come, first served principle). This can mean, as a member of the Provincial Executive of Noord-Holland once said, that a casino could easily be given priority over a school or a healthcare centre. We believe that this can and should be done differently, certainly when resources are scarce. However, we are bound by current legislation and moreover do not have a democratic mandate to make such decisions. We will always have to work on the basis of clearly defined criteria and in conjunction with the authorities.

Dilemma 2: Public support or speed when creating extra capacity on the electricity grid

The considerable increase in both supply of and demand for electricity will force us to expand and upgrade our grids more quickly in the coming years. This needs to be done both in rural areas and in the more urban areas. It is also necessary in order to achieve the goals of the Dutch Climate Agreement. The necessary network expansions have major spatial implications. Harmonious solutions that blend in, whether in towns or in the landscape, are crucial, including when it comes to maintaining public support for the energy transition. This takes a lot of time and many consultations and involves working through long-term decision-making processes. By way of illustration: a conventional development process for a new substation takes seven years on average, whereby the actual construction only takes one and a half to two years. It goes without saying that we consider it important to conduct careful and inclusive processes, which protect the rights of individuals and help ensure sustainable support for the energy transition. At the same time, there is a broad desire within society to speed things up, make clear choices and be more decisive, in part so as to achieve the goals in good time for 2030. These desires and interests regularly come into conflict and sometimes lead to major delays in decision making. Although it is true that processes could move much faster, there is a risk from a political, administrative and legal perspective that this could be to the detriment of sufficient public support or due care. This is where the major challenge lies for public authorities, network companies and other stakeholders in navigating between the various desires and interests in an appropriate manner. It also has to be remembered that both much more speed and sufficient support are crucial to be able to achieve the goals in time. 

Dilemma 3: Physical living environment or policy-based and political-administrative reality as a starting point for designing an energy network

The Netherlands is facing many major challenges and transitions, such as combating climate change, tackling the nitrogen crisis, building affordable new homes, making the housing stock and mobility more sustainable, creating favourable conditions for business owners and companies, and the digitalisation of society. These developments have a direct impact on our energy networks and vice versa. Responsibility for and ownership of these challenges and transitions generally lies with government departments, cabinet ministers, provincial authorities and municipalities and with councils, and is often organised along sectoral or thematic lines. As a co-designer of the energy system of the future, Alliander works actively with other parties to find solutions for each of these challenges and transitions. Eventually everything needs to come together in a single, affordable, sustainable and accessible energy system. To do so, a comprehensive appraisal is needed because both the sum total and the dependencies between the different elements of the energy system are important for an efficient implementation. If this happens, we can arrive at a single integrated programme for the entire energy system – including making choices concerning spatial planning and setting aside land – on the basis of national, regional and sectoral programmes. This comprehensive view will help us to make better appraisals and it acknowledges the interconnection between the various challenges and transitions, and their combined impacts. However, the fragmentation of responsibilities in the current set-up for policy-making, politics and administration means that either the comprehensive appraisal will not come about or only to a limited degree, or it will lead to complex and often slow processes. And at the same time, it is clear that integrating individual plans at a later stage will lead to unworkable situations or will endanger the goals. A combination of realism about what is possible in the real physical world and effective coordination and direction is needed to enable the various challenges and transitions to come together in realistic and feasible plans. Ideally, comprehensive policy-based and political decisions will be made regularly about prioritising and phasing at the national and regional levels on the basis of what is possible in the real physical world. This is because, although much of this transition will take place at the regional level, there is a lack of specific guidelines for effectively bringing the various realities together at present or to give direction and arrive at consistent ideas about the development pathways for the energy system of the future. To this end, it is crucial that a start is made in 2022 on a comprehensive national Energy Plan for 2050 and a national Energy System Programme in which public authorities, regional and other energy network operators and market parties jointly formulate these plans.

What have we learned? 

More empathy for consumers’ and customers’ situation leads to more understanding    

Alliander was confronted with a striking photo this year: residents of a neighbourhood in Amsterdam staging a sit-down protest in our trench. They disagreed with the location of a new transformer substation and had no hesitation in making their views known. This is a good example of an area of tension. The electrification of the Netherlands over the coming years will mean that thousands of these transformer substations will have to be built; at the same time, few people are pleased to see them arrive in their own street. To avoid situations like the one in Amsterdam in the future, we will have to have more empathy for our customers’ perspective and involve them proactively in the steps we are going to take. The winning idea from the Alliander Innovathon provides us with specific guidelines for this, enabling those living nearby to virtually join us in looking at and deciding on a location for a transformer substation.

Proactive collaboration with stakeholders to speed up the energy transition   

To strengthen the electricity grid and make it ready for the future, new substations will be needed in addition to new cables. We will have to go through protracted procedures prior to building them. Finding a suitable location generally takes a lot of time, because we have a spatial planning problem in the Netherlands. Land is scarce. Nonetheless, it is essential to arrive at agreements with municipalities even though this is often quite a challenge in practice. The town council of Neerijnen put did away with the zoning plan last year, for example. As a result, business owners will have to wait at least another three years for the capacity they wanted. It does not have to be this way, as Duiven shows. There, the town council proactively offered a location for a new substation. This shortened the permit procedures considerably. It just shows that municipalities are a crucial link in the energy transition. It is therefore extremely important for network operators to talk frequently to municipal councils.     

Working from home is not a one-size-fits-all solution   

Large numbers of our employees are working from home as a consequence of the coronavirus pandemic and government guidelines. The switch happened all of a sudden, with no extensive preparation. We just did it. Looking back, we may have approached it too rationally. Throughout 2020 and early 2021, we started picking up signals that there were employees who were unable to function well at home. This not only applied to work, but also to their work-life balance. Where one person finds it easy to work from home most of the time, another has a need for face-to-face contact and a decent workstation in the office. Because of this, we moved to hybrid working in the first quarter of 2021, combining working online and working on site as effectively as possible. Teams were given the opportunity to arrange hybrid working in a way that suits them best, making it possible for colleagues to work in the office if they felt the need. This has shown us that there is no single solution that works for everyone; it's all about tailoring solutions to individuals.