Sustainable islands as inspiration for the energy transition (II): the Dutch case

The shift towards a renewable energy system to fight climate change is not an easy task and re-quires a profound change in the energy system. Islands that have already implemented a sustainable energy system can serve as examples for the mainland. In the second article on this topic we look closer to home: the island of Schiermonnikoog.

While the energy transition is already well underway on several islands, the Dutch islands, like the rest of the Netherlands, are still lagging behind. This is partly explainable. Unlike the European islands mentioned by Annabel de Gheldere in the first article on this topic, the Dutch islands are connected to the national grid and therefore have a stable electricity supply. So there is no urgent need to provide for their own energy supply.

Nevertheless, steps are being taken here to make the islands more sustainable. Texel, for instance, is investing in hydrogen and Ameland already has a solar park. Tessa Terhoeve, however, chose the island of Schiermonnikoog for her research into sustainable islands for her Master’s degree in Complex Systems Engineering and Management at TU Delft. This was done as part of the Sustainable Island Program that was set up by the Dutch company Energy Investment Management, in partnership with the Clean Energy For EU Islands initiative, Erasmus University, TU Delft and the Indonesian University SBM ITB.

The mayor of Schiermonnikoog at the time, Ineke van Gent, had expressed the ambition for the island to be self-sufficient by 2025, just like in the Tilos case. She felt that it was important for the islanders to value this ambition as well. Together with the municipality, Tessa researched the conditions under which the islanders would want to become self-sufficient in terms of energy supply. On the basis of her research, Tessa saw possibilities to achieve these goals by placing small wind turbines, a bio-energy plant and a solar field.

With just around 900 inhabitants, this Wadden Island is still relatively small compared to Texel and Terschelling. During the tourist season, however, the number of people staying on the island rises to thousands. Tessa: “If you were to take the peak of the tourist season as your starting point, you wouldn’t have a business case. The presence of a cable is an advantage: you don’t have to take the peak into account. That’s often not the case with other islands.” Because developing a microgrid in the Netherlands is still in its infancy, Tessa looked at what is happening internationally in this area and how you can relate that to the Dutch situation. She looked at the examples of the island of Samsø in Denmark and the Isle of Eigg in Scotland, where a microgrid has been in place for ten years. Samsø in particular is a great example and the mayor and residents of Schiermonnikoog have visited this island.


For her research, Tessa approached inhabitants of Schiermonnikoog to participate in a survey. Due to the outbreak of COVID-19, this took place online. In the survey, several factors were discussed, such as the degree of desired self-sufficiency, the ideal energy mix to accomplish this, and the degree of desired involvement in the process. For the ideal energy mix, different scenarios were presented for the combination of wind, solar and biomass, with the percentage distribution varying each time.

What struck her most about the survey is that the residents would prefer a free choice, rather than an outsider telling them: it’s either A or B. Although that had not been the intention of the survey, Tessa says. In the end it was about the conclusion. The reaction certainly has to do with the pride the inhabitants take in their island and with preservation of their independence: they want to do things themselves and be able to make their own decisions.

The survey also showed that the islanders wish to be more involved in the process: in the decision-making, but also through financial participation. Precisely because there is no basic necessity for own energy generation, the will must stem from a desire for sustainability. In principle, islanders are more concerned about sustainability and are also concerned about climate change, but they particularly dislike wind turbines. “They already have a beautiful island and then you don’t really want solar parks and wind turbines”, explains Tessa. This was also a conclusion from the survey. Wind turbines and biomass are more controversial here. Typical for a small Wadden Island is that, especially in the case of a wind turbine, you can see it from all sides. Policy already stipulated that no high wind turbines were allowed at that time. The preference was therefore for solar energy. Solar roofs would have been a good alternative for wind turbines and biomass, but due to the presence of monumental buildings in particular, there are too few buildings that would qualify. This leaves the alternative of solar parks.

Space plays a role here. On islands, there is almost no vacant space: if it is not built environment, it is nature reserve. And that is exactly what the residents take pride in. They attach great value to nature, which also increases resistance. Tessa: “That makes it very difficult in the energy transition: it has to be beautiful and in consultation with nature, residents and the location.

“I learned from Schiermonnikoog that in principle such an island has a number of favourable elements but you still need to do stakeholder engagement. Talk to the inhabitants about the conditions under which they will allow wind and/or biomass to be developed, for example. If there is no answer to this, look at other possible sustainable innovative solutions that can be realised on or around the island.”

As a follow-up to the survey, sessions were to be held with residents to see what steps they could take to become more sustainable, but these could not take place due to COVID-19. However, via online sessions the experiences were shared with other Dutch, German and Danish Wadden Sea islands. In addition, the results have been included in the Sustainable Island Program of Energy Investment Management that focuses on policy development, accelerators and enabling technology.

See also the following Youtube video on this topic.

Follow-up research

Follow-up research is currently being conducted by Charlie van Dijl (TU Delft/Erasmus University). Charlie is conducting a philosophical exploration of the drivers of the sustainable transition on islands and a research on microgrids. On 5 September you can hear her speak during the webinar ‘Next-Generation technologies for sustainable energy islands‘, along with Kitepower en SeaQurrent.

In addition, Adli Renhoren investigates the sustainable transition of Indonesian islands. With more than 17,000 islands in Indonesia, the Sustainable Island Program expects to be able to make an impact there as well. Many of these islands currently have no electricity or only a diesel generator.

When Lake Markermeer was split off from Lake IJsselmeer in 1976, it was disconnected from the sea and rivers. As a result, the lake became a stagnant system. Fish and bird populations have declined dramatically since. Natuurmonumenten (Dutch Society for Nature Conservation) and Rijkswaterstaat are now restoring this lake, which is one of the largest freshwater lakes in western Europe, by constructing islands, marshes and mud flats from the sediments that have accumulated in the lake in recent decades. Bringing back these habitats will greatly benefit endangered plants and animals. These ‘Marker Wadden’ will form a unique ecosystem that will boost biodiversity in the Netherlands.

Source: Natuurmonumenten

Self-sufficient settlement
In 2020, a self-sufficient settlement was opened on Harbour Island, one of the Marker Wadden islands and the only one of the nature islands that is accessible to the public. Here, electricity is generated on site using solar panels and there is a dormant wind turbine as a back-up source; water comes from a local source and is drained and purified on site.
The island is not connected to the national electricity, gas, drinking water or sewage networks, making it the first off-grid island in the Netherlands. Sustainability is also a priority in the construction and design of the buildings.

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