Illustration by Studio Sonsuz

Who owns the wind? Pathways to reconnect communities with wind energy in the Netherlands.

Diny van Est, Anne Marieke Schwencke, Noud Sleumer

Abstract

In their exploration of wind energy in the Netherlands, Diny van Est, Anne Marieke Schwenke, and Noud Sleumer discuss the societal attitudes and challenges. Traditional windmills held local significance, unlike modern wind turbines which lack community ties. Resistance arises from concerns about visual pollution, lack of fairness, posing obstacles to wind projects.

Sleumer’s installation aims to bridge the gap between tradition and modernity, aiming to reflect  on our relation with renewable energy.

Community energy cooperatives, like Rijnland Energy and Zuidenwind, involve residents in decision-making and profit-sharing, fostering community empowerment and strengthening the bond with wind infrastructure. The authors stress the importance of policymakers addressing community concerns and involving residents in wind energy projects to ensure a sustainable future.

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Diny Van East

Author

As an environmental anthropologist and researcher, my fascination lies in the unknown, the excitement of new beginnings, and the profound impact of human stories. Before we got this idea of sailing the Atlantic in 2022-23, I held positions at the  Netherlands Court of Audit, the University of Leiden and local community organizations. With a PhD in social sciences my extensive experience in qualitative research dates back to 1992. As program manager at the Netherland Court of Audit I was responsible for research related to the energy transition, and I trained international researchers in conducting performance audits aligned with sustainable development goals. I am socially active in the energy transition as member and board member of energy cooperatives.

Anne Marieke

Author

As a youngster I experienced the oil crisis in the seventies, Tjernobyl in the eighties and increasing environmental awareness in the nineties. It made me conscious of our extreme dependency on energy.  Energy has been my focus ever since. I was trained as a physicist (MSc) and environmental scientist and advanced my career in the environmental sector.

Since 2012 I have been working as an independent researcher with my own bureau AS I-Search. Citizen engagement in the energy transition is my specialization. In one of my projects, the Local Energy Monitor, I have been tracking the progress of the Dutch energy cooperative movement on a yearly basis since 2015.  This inspiring social or civil society movement combines an entrepreneurial and systemic approach to the energy transition, advancing collective local ownership of vital energy assets.

I have initiated several collective projects in my own home town Leiden. Currently I am a board member of Rijnland Energie. 

Noud Sleumer

Author

Noud Sleumer is a creator who uses design and research to support organizations and businesses in addressing current societal challenges. He uses the power of imagination and visual design to create engagement, awareness, and support through artistic installations for a broad audience. His work has the ability to make important topics accessible in an insightful way, thereby fostering connection and behavioural change. With his work, he mobilizes people. His inventive approach is utilized by organizations such as RIVM, the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science, various municipalities, and museums both domestically and internationally.

Studio Sonsuz

Illustrator

We are Studio Sonsuz.
We like fresh, new, bright and joyful things.
We like to play.
With colour, sketchy sketches and humour.
We love challenges and crazy combinations.

Elisa Bresseleers & Imke Litjens are running a young women’s collective with a wide range of interests. They are partners in heart and soul: both in their private life and at work. Together they run the company called Studio Sonsuz. Sonsuz means infinite. It is a word that brings the unknown to an imagination. And with that it is a perfect description of our ambition as artists. With our creative expressions we want to question boundaries in contemporary society. We do this in various forms of media, such as photography, film, illustration and graphic design.

For more work: www.studiosonsuz.com / Instagram: @studiosonsuz

Introduction

As we sail back to the Netherlands after a year at sea, the wind gets a dual role—not merely facilitating our journey, but it also stimulates reflection on the use of wind power back home. Holland’s flat terrain and proximity to the North Sea make wind a significant player in its historical landscape. Traditional windmills, once essential for local safety and livelihoods, harnessed the power of wind to grind grain, saw wood, and pump out water, to drain the land.

As we approach the coast, a new sight greets us: offshore wind turbines rising from the sea, their huge blades catching the wind to produce sustainable energy. It’s a modern version of our beloved windmills, yet the contrast between these two forms of wind energy is strong. While offshore wind farms symbolize progress and environmental consciousness, their onshore counterparts often face opposition.

Anthropological scholars emphasize the value-laden nature of technologies, indicating that societal attitudes towards wind energy are deeply influenced by cultural and social factors (Dumont, 2013, Graeber, 2013, Steiner, 2023). Sleumer’s design research, available at Noud Sleumer – Conceptual Designer, seeks to understand how people actively shape the values associated with windmills and wind turbines. The old windmills, he states, were deeply embedded in an economic, technological, and social local system. Contemporary wind turbines, however, stand as anonymous steel towers. They visually alter the landscape while at the same time they seem no longer connected with the local community. Is our social relationship with wind energy alienated?

In this article, we explore a part of the Dutch energy transition, focusing on the shift from fossil fuels to sustainable energy sources through wind power. With over 3000 land-based wind turbines now scattered across the country (CBS 2023) we delve into the complexities of this transformation. With more wind projects to come, it is crucial to find pathways that foster a connection between us and the wind. What is needed to overcome the alienation? We will study the perspectives of both anti-wind turbine activists and community energy cooperatives related to wind energy projects on land.

At first, we will examine the concerns expresses by anti-wind turbine activists. They raise issues related to visual pollution, noise, and the impact on wildlife, such as the potential harm to birds. Local protests in the Netherlands have posed significant challenges for dozens of onshore wind projects. Residents’ objections have led to project cancellations, delays, or suspensions.

Next, we will explore Sleumer’s design project, which studies the disconnection between modern wind turbines and their historical counterparts, exploring the alienation felt by communities towards contemporary wind infrastructure.

Further, we turn our attention to community energy cooperatives. They represent a grassroots approach to renewable energy, where local residents actively participate in and benefit from the projects. Research by Schwenke since 2015, available at https://asisearch.nl/, shows the potential of these cooperatives. They actively reengage residents with the wind and challenge ownership structures, ensuring that companies do not monopolize its benefits.

Finally, we’ll conclude the paper with our findings. They offer insights for strategies to overcome alienation and achieve sustainable change.

Learning from anti-wind turbine activists

Wind Alarm, a growing citizens movement, opposes plans to install 150-200 meter high wind turbines in close proximity to residential neighbourhoods and natural landscapes. The objections raised by local residents have resulted in project cancellations, delays, and suspensions. Their primary concerns focus on landscape impact, public health, and property values. (https://windalarm.amsterdam/org/stichting-windalarm).

In contrast, The National Government takes the lead in coordinating decision-making for wind projects larger than 100 megawatts, which translates to 30 wind turbines. Decisions are based on the administrative agreements between the government and the provinces. Notably, the government has designated about 10 areas in the Netherlands as suitable for large-scale wind energy (Ministry of Infrastructure (2014). Wind Energy on Land Structure Vision).

One of these 10 areas, the Drentse Veenkolonieën, made national news when the local population strongly opposed the arrival of windmills in the wind park named ‘De Drentse Monden and Oostermoer’. It spans two municipalities across a vast 50-square kilometre area. While the residents acknowledge the need to address climate change, they are hesitant about living amidst 45 wind turbines. Critics raise concerns about disruption of the natural landscape: “The Veenkolonieën are flat and open. You cannot escape the dominant image of the wind turbines, the shadow cast and it’s noise”. The positive economic effects of wind turbines benefit only a limited number of residents, while the negative effects affect the majority. This has an impact on the social-economic structure. Residents also feel unheard by decision-makers, not addressing their concerns (Visscher 2019).

The notion that resistance to wind turbines can be mitigated through better information and by allowing local residents to share in the benefits—approaches that have worked elsewhere—does not seem effective in Drente. As articulated by one of the activists, “Money won’t solve this issue” (Visscher 2018, 2019). Anti-wind activists in the Drentse Veenkolonieën persistently continue their protest. Their opposition is manifest through protests, public meetings, petitions, and legal battles. In his documentary, ‘Headwind, the sorrow of the Veenkolonieën’ (2021), Vlaanderen shows the consequences when the concerns of citizens, such as visual pollution and noise, are disregarded in favour of what is often termed as ‘bulldozer politics’. Through his work, Vlaanderen underscores the importance of participatory governance and the need for decision-makers to prioritize the interests and concerns of those directly impacted.

A design approach to rethink the relation with the wind

Sleumer’s premise centres around wind turbines as a crucial solution for combatting climate change and promoting sustainable energy. However, as a designer he seeks to understand how this solution can better align with people’s needs (Sleumer, 2023-24. Wind Pavilion Exhibition in Sustainable Dutch Design, Open Air Museum in Arnhem). To address and understand the alienation some communities feel towards wind energy, as we have seen in the Drentse Veenkolonieën case, Sleumer delves into historical archives and engages with both supporters and opponents. His exploration of the contrast between traditional windmills and modern wind turbines informs his design research. Ultimately, Sleumer’s design research aims to foster how we can collectively reconnect with wind energy, considering both technological-economic and socio-cultural aspects.

Drawing inspiration from the traditional windmills Sleumer studied the archives of the Open Air Museum in Arnhem, a museum that collects and display Dutch material culture. He discovered numerous artefacts adorned with the motif of windmills. These objects such as porcelain, plates, wood carvings and more, serve as tangible reminders of the enduring presence of windmills in the Dutch collective consciousness. Moreover, Sleumer uncovered an interesting historical parallel. Back in the 1800s, windmills faced similar criticisms—they were considered horizon pollution, generated excessive noise, and emitted odours. These concerns mirror the contemporary debates and protests surrounding modern wind turbines. It’s a clear reminder that public perception of technological interventions in the landscape often follows a cyclical pattern, echoing across time.

Further, Sleumer delves into the contrast between contemporary wind turbines and traditional windmills. Modern wind turbines are typically owned by private companies or utility providers. They stand as anonymous steel towers. Unlike traditional windmills, which were closely tied to local economies, contemporary turbines may lack a direct societal or economic connection. In contrast, traditional windmills were fully embedded in the economic, technological, and social fabric of their surroundings. Each windmill had a known miller, and their multifunctional roles included grinding grain, sawing wood, and draining polders. These windmills were essential for local safety and livelihoods, contributing to stable food supplies and protecting against floods.

Finally, Sleumer interviewed both wind turbine supporters and windmill opponents. Ultimately, he identified 10 most important conditions – referred to as pillars – that  are more or less important for creating broader support for wind turbines.

Sleumer’s 10 pillars supported by RIVM data (2013, 2022, 2023);

1. Visual Impact: Assess the design, height, and size of the wind turbine;

2. Ecological Impact: Consider the positive ecological effects of the wind turbine;

3. Integration into Landscape: The extent to which wind turbines blend in with the environment (whether in an industrial area or natural setting);

4. Safety: local residents’ confidence in the safety of the wind turbines;

5. Noise: Address concerns about sound volume;

6. Technological Development: Examine the quality of technology used in the wind turbines;

7. Economic Local Benefits: Explore the economic advantages for local residents;

8. Shadow Flicker: Assess issues related to shadow flicker;

9. Ownership and Identity: Consider how connected and responsible local residents feel toward the wind turbines;

10. Participation in Installation and Operation: involvement of the community in installing and operating the wind turbines;

To visually symbolize these 10 pillars and to connect them tangibly with the traditional windmills, Sleumer crafted ten miniature wind turbines. Each mini wind turbine serves as a representation of a specific pillar. Using vintage ceramic tiles, plates, and cups as building blocks, Sleumer designed a novel kind of windmill (as depicted in the picture below). Remarkably, each turbine spins at a different speed—faster rotations signify the greater importance of the corresponding pillar. This installation aims to bridge the gap between tradition and modernity, inviting contemplation on our relationship with renewable energy resources (Exhibition in the Open Air Museum in Arnhem: April – October 2024).

 

Image 1 Exhibition of the 10 mini wind mills (photo Noud Sleumer)

Energy cooperatives can help to break the alienation 

Indeed, the ten pillars identified by Sleumer resonate with existing practices within energy cooperatives. Energy cooperatives are collective organizations formed by local residents, businesses, or community members with the goal of advancing sustainable energy initiatives. Below two examples will show that these cooperatives address the challenges associated with wind turbines in practice and connect residents to the wind again, through ownership.

These two cases are part of a bigger movement of 714 energy cooperatives, which are actively engaged in nearly 89% of the country’s municipalities. About 105 initiatives are working on collective wind energy projects. The majority of wind farms belong to (local) farmers, public partners (a.o. provinces) and private compagnies (Monitor Financiële Participatie, 2024). In 2023 5% of Dutch on-land wind is cooperatively owned (Schwenke 2024, https://asisearch.nl ).

Rijnland Energy and the Watergeuzen; the first fully cooperative wind turbines in the Holland-Rijnland region

Along the highway near Leiden/Zoeterwoude, sustainable energy is generated by two windmills: the Watergeuzen. These windmills have over 600 owners. All these people, originating from the surrounding communities, could buy Watergeuzen shares for 250 euros each, as a member of a local cooperative. With their money, the Rijnland Energy cooperative acquired the turbines in 2022 for €1.65 million  (https://www.rijnlandenergiecooperatie.nl). As a result, the windmills are now 100% cooperatively owned. As co-owners, local residents have a say in turbine management and share in the profits generated by renewable energy. Any additional earnings will be allocated through their affiliated cooperatives to support local sustainable projects. The yearly production is around 8.800 MWh, enough for 3.300 households. They save 5.000 tons of  Carbon dioxide (CO₂).

Residents interviewed gave the following statements for their active involvement:

“I grew up on a farm in Zoeterwoude. I am actively involved in more than 10 wind cooperatives across the Netherlands. I believe that energy cooperatives empower local communities, promote renewable energy, and create a sense of ownership among members. I visit general member meetings or read their annual reports in order to learn from other cooperatives and bring that knowledge to Rijnland Energy” (…)

“I view the energy transition as something positive. My ancestors were peat diggers, millers, electricians, and oil farmers. Their life stories bear the marks of ever-evolving energy systems. Energy is always changing, something we’ve somewhat forgotten. Now, we find ourselves in the midst of such a transition once again. And that’s a good thing” (…..)

“When the wind blows, I always think…the Watergeuzen also run for me and my grandchild, who also has a share. One day he will get pocket money from the wind (…)”

By naming the wind turbines they’re no longer anonymous structures. These turbines named after the Watergeuzen, who played an important role in the Dutch struggle for independence during the Eighty Years’ War (1566 till 1648), now bear a strong link to our national and local history. In 1574, the Watergeuzen were stationed at the current location of the wind turbines, near the local Pape Lake, ready to liberate the city of Leiden from Spanish occupation. The annual celebration of the ‘Relief of Leiden’ on the third of October further reinforces this historical connection.

According to the chairman of the cooperative: “People realize that they can have an impact on the energy transition. Why leave everything to the government and the market when we can manage our affairs better ourselves? The wind belongs to all of us, and it’s wonderful if we can all benefit from it”.

Zuidenwind: a cooperative with 5 wind turbines and two community funds

Zuidenwind, founded in 2011, is a cooperative of citizens in the south of the Netherlands. This cooperative has 700 members (www.zuidenwind.org). Their mission is to boost wind energy production together with the local community. Zuidenwind owns five community wind turbines. Profits directly benefit the shareholders as well and the region, setting them apart from commercial developers. Local projects can access the community fund and a sustainability fund.  Examples of projects already financed by these funds are a community centre was made energy-neutral, asbest roofs were replaced by solar panels, and the safety of a local intersection was improved. Zuidenwind’s commitment to renewable energy underscores the idea that wind energy belongs to everyone. The cooperative aims to supply the sustainable energy directly to participants once the current contract with their energy company expires.

Conclusions

The following conclusions can be drawn regarding the social-cultural relationship with wind energy and potential strategies to overcome alienation:

Anthropological scholars emphasize that technologies, including wind turbines, carry inherent values and judgments. This suggests that societal attitudes towards wind energy are not solely based on its technical aspects but are deeply influenced by cultural and social factors.

Anti-wind turbine activists express concerns over landscape impact, noise pollution, and potential harm to wildlife, leading to protests and legal battles. This opposition underscores the need for policymakers and developers to address community concerns and involve local residents in decision-making processes.

Sleumer’s design research highlights a perceived alienation from modern wind turbines compared to the traditional windmills deeply embedded in Dutch culture. This alienation stems from factors such as visual impact in the landscape, lack of local economic ties, and the disconnection between communities and modern wind infrastructure. Sleumer’s design approach aims to bridge the gap between tradition and modernity by reimagining the socio-cultural connection with wind energy. By visually symbolizing key pillars of support for wind turbines and connecting them with traditional windmill motifs, Sleumer seeks to foster collective reconnection with renewable energy resources.

Energy cooperatives like Rijnland Energy and Zuidenwind demonstrate how community ownership and involvement can address alienation from wind energy. These cooperatives are part of a bigger movement of 714 energy cooperatives of which 105 initiatives are working on collective wind energy projects. These cooperatives empower local communities, promote renewable energy, and create a sense of ownership among members, thereby fostering a stronger connection between residents and wind infrastructure. Naming wind turbines after historical figures like the Watergeuzen and linking them to local history reinforces their connection to the community and enhances residents’ sense of ownership and pride in renewable energy initiatives.

Used Literature

CBS (2023) https://www.cbs.nl/nl-nl/cijfers/detail/70960ned

Dumont, L (2013) On value: the Radcliffe-brown Lecture in Social Anthropology, 1980 HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory, 3(1), 287-315.

Graeber, D.  (2013) It is value that brings Universes into being. HAU: Journal of ethnographic theory, 3 (2), 219-243.

Local Energy Monitor 2023 (2024) Lokale Energie Monitor 2023 | HIER

Monitor Financiele Participatie (2024) www.rijksoverheid.nl/documenten/rapporten/2023/10/24/bijlage-4-monitor-financiele-participatie

Ministerie I&M, (2012) Structuurvisie Windenergie op land. Den Haag.

Visscher, M. (2018) Energietransitie. Naar een fossielvrije maar hoe? Nieuw Amsterdam, Amsterdam

Visscher, M. (2019) Het windmolen oproer. Een drieluik over de windmolens in de Drentse Veenkoloniën. In: De Groene : www.groene.nl/artikel/vroeger-had-je-de-herenboeren-nu-heb-je-de-windboeren. verschenen 6 oktober 2019 – verschenen in nr. 42

Rijksinstituut voor Volksgezondheid en Milieu (RIVM), Windturbines: invloed op de beleving en gezondheid van omwonenden, 2013’

Rijksinstituut voor Volksgezondheid en Milieu (RIVM), Factsheet gezondheidseffecten van windturbine geluid, 2023’

Rijksinstituut voor Volksgezondheid en Milieu (RIVM),Verkenning van opties voor gezondheidsonderzoek rond windturbines, 2022’

Steiner. S. (2023) Anthropology and Value. In: Interdisciplinary Value Theory, pp. 51-65. S. Steiner (eds). Springer Verlag, Berlin.

Vlaanderen, K. (2021) Tegenwind, het verdriet van de Veenkoloniën. A documentary to be seen at: https://www.human.nl/tegenwind.html

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