Shortcut for biomass plant

by Kleis Jager, De Telegraaf. February 27, 2024. 

AMSTERDAM – Officials of outgoing climate minister Rob Jetten helped energy supplier Vattenfall with 395 million euros to build a hotly contested biomass power plant near Diemen. While Jetten had promised not to give new subsidies to companies that burn trees for energy.

Newly revealed documents, seen by De Telegraaf, show that government officials were also concerned about this. Awarding the subsidy “may cause further hassle if this becomes more widely known,” one of them writes. Following the new information, environmental clubs – the Clean Air Committee (CSL) and Mobilisation for the Environment (MOB) of serial litigator Johan Vollenbroek – are once again appealing against the award of the aid.

The biomass plant, which would supply district heating in Amsterdam and Almere, has been a topic of discussion for years. In August last year, the Council of State annulled the environmental permit, a major blow for Vattenfall. Research must first be conducted into the environmental consequences of burning large quantities of pellets – pieces of pressed wood from trees that come from forests in North America and the Baltic states. Burning wood and crops emits more CO2 than coal. also nitrogen and (ultra) particulate matter.

The ruling was a victory for CSL and MOB. In May 2023, CSL appealed to the Open Government Act (WOO) to find out whether a subsidy had been granted for the biomass power plant, which was to be the largest in the Netherlands. Vattenfall had a commitment from 2019, but the deadline was in danger of expiring due to the objection procedure that MOB and CSL had initiated against the permit. The activists’ premonition was correct: the Swedish company had submitted a new application in September 2022. To which Jetten pledged 395 million euros.

The latter was remarkable, because Jetten himself distanced himself from wood burning, which was getting an increasingly bad reputation, five months before Vattenfall’s application. Few experts believe that burning trees is sustainable.

New plantings for burned trees do absorb CO2 again, but that takes a long time, thirty to fifty years. The principle does not work afterwards as long as the pellets disappear into the oven faster than trees grow.

That is why the government decided to no longer provide new subsidies for heating homes, buildings and greenhouses. Yet the Netherlands Enterprise Agency (RVO), for which Jetten is responsible, approved Vattenfall’s application almost a year later.

A second WOO request from MOB and CSL now reveals that the D66 leader’s officials doubted whether the allocation would be correct. The same civil servant who says he is afraid of ‘hassle’ asks a colleague why Vattenfall would actually be eligible for support.

Another proposes adding a sentence in a message to the minister that ‘these types of applications will no longer be accepted in the future’. This official says ‘he wants to point out that this was not the intention.’

After all, Jetten’s subsidy stop reflects the unequivocal wish to immediately stop the large-scale burning of wood for heating networks. From now on, the money must go to ‘high-quality applications of bio raw materials’ that are still in their infancy, such as bioconcrete, green gas or biofuel for heavy road transport and aviation and maritime shipping.

In June 2023, Jetten received parliamentary questions about the issue. He denied that he had made an exception for Vattenfall: everything was handled according to the criteria for sustainability subsidies. These criteria distinguish between ‘low-temperature heat’ and ‘high-temperature heat’, i.e. heat of less and more than 100 degrees. “It concerns a project for a district heating network that operates at these high temperatures,” Jetten said at the time.

A spokesperson for his ministry emphasizes that the matter is mainly a matter of timing. “These subsidies are being phased out. In 2021, money was no longer available for low-temperature heat, and in 2023 no more money was available for high-temperature heat. Vattenfall was on time in 2022.”

Yet the award is incorrect, according to specialists in the field of district heating and biomass that De Telegraaf spoke to. “Heat for buildings and homes is by definition low-quality,” says Toon Buiting, advisor on heat supply for the built environment. “That’s exactly the point: the source must be hotter than 100 degrees to deliver approximately 70 degrees to the user after a lot of heat loss along the way.”

“It is very strange,” says Buiting, “that the award so clearly goes against the wishes of the House of Representatives and Jetten himself to no longer use wood to heat the built environment and horticulture.”

For Fenna Swart, the driving force behind CSL, it is crystal clear that Jetten’s officials should have shown Vattenfall the door. This state of affairs is indicative of the biomass dossier, she says. “For years, biomass was the showpiece of the energy transition, it is a billion-dollar business, the political and economic interests are enormous. The juggling with the definition of high- and low-quality heat ultimately only served Vattenfall.”