Executive Board President Smits concerned about pace of energy transition

President of the Executive Board Robert-Jan Smits fears that the pace at which the energy transition is being implemented in the Netherlands will lead to the departure of the manufacturing industry from the country. He said this in an interview with national newspaper De Telegraaf on Friday. When asked why he of all people is calling attention to this issue, Smits said the following: “I think universities should make an important contribution to the debate.” What do Professors David Smeulders and Sjoerd Romme think about his words of warning?

photo Bart van Overbeeke

In Friday’s edition of De Telegraaf Smits expressed his concern about the “extreme pace” at which the energy transition is being implemented and the problems this could pose to companies. He thinks they may well opt to move abroad as a result. “We got rid of natural gas far too quickly and the alternative isn’t ready yet,” Smits said. “Thousands of companies are on the waiting list for a power connection and people with solar panels on their roofs have to pay because the grid can’t handle the power they’re generating. And on top of that, there are 1.5 million houses that have to be taken off the gas”.

In the interview, the Executive Board President says “our obsession with the climate plans” is pushing the Netherlands in the same direction as Germany. “Next thing you know, we’ll also have what I like to call the ‘German disease’ of de-industrialization. Energy is way more expensive here than it is in the United States and China. This mainly affects the manufacturing and chemical industries. Once those have been wiped out, employment opportunities will disappear as well. And these are the exact industries that are essential for Europe’s strategic autonomy.”

Power grid reinforcements

This is why he advocates taking more time, only accelerating the process after the required reinforcements to the power grid have been completed around 2030, “because we should stick to the goals for 2050”.

TU/e’s opening of the new academic year on Monday, September 4 will be themed around the earning power for the Netherlands and Europe. The energy transition plays a crucial role in this respect. Speakers will include CEO of ASML Peter Wennink and Diederik Samsom, Head of Cabinet for former European Commissioner Frans Timmermans. Smits thinks that politicians should make their voices heard. “Especially in times of election. What do we do when goals turn out not to be feasible? Take more time?”

Heated discussion

To De Telegraaf’s suggestion that his words of warning will lead to a heated discussion with Samsom on Monday, Smits responded that he’s aware of the latter “having an opinion diametrically opposed to mine. That’s how things go at a university. You work things out in a debate.”

When asked about the possibility that Frans Timmermans will become prime minister, he said he expects him to “continue to be fully committed to the green agenda. He will receive support from those that want to consume less and talk about degrowth. But to me it’s not the most sensible route to take. Everyone knows that you fall over if you’re on a bike that’s standing still. There always has to be growth. Other growth. Green growth. There’s an incredibly wide range of opportunities to scale up when it comes to reusable energy. Take all of the great projects at TU/e, such as the salt battery and storage using metal powder. It is in this kind of research and innovation that the government should make major investments. At the moment we’re often forced to get capital from the United States.”

Throwing out old shoes

Professor of Energy Technology David Smeulders, just returned from China where he attended a summer school, says he couldn’t agree more with Smits’s basic points of view. “As he implies, we have to be careful here in the Netherlands that we don’t throw out our old shoes before we have new ones. I’m always a bit hesitant to mess with data that the government has committed to in this respect, but Smits is right when he says the power grid is in need of drastic improvement. In China, for example, they’re very clear on this. They say that carbon emissions will be highest there in 2030, after which it will be steadily decreased until they’re climate-neutral in 2060. The Dutch claim to climate neutrality by 2050 is false. The way it’s going now, we’ll still have 25% of carbon emissions by then.”

That’s why, according to Smeulders, it’s important to quickly provide clarity on the order and pace in which the Netherlands is to implement the energy transition. “The things I hear now are often based on incompetence or exaggerated optimism. And of course, for the Netherlands the earning component, which Smits clearly draws attention to, should be preserved. That’s exactly why setting the right pace is important. After all, it’s a transition, not a revolution. Having said that, it’s important business doesn’t start leaning back: we do need to keep up a decent pace. This is achievable through subsidies (an example he mentions is the subsidy for subsoil carbon storage, ed.) and carbon pricing, including on a European level. Because you do need a level playing field.”


Professor of Entrepreneurship & Innovation Sjoerd Romme says it’s difficult for him to judge whether too high a pace when it comes to the energy transition will scare companies away to other countries. Romme: “But Smits obviously talks to strategic business partners more often than I do, so he’s in a better position to assess the situation.” Romme has noticed that companies are already turning their gaze abroad, but mainly to expand their activities. “The Brainport region is pretty overheated as it is, and it’s difficult to find a sufficient number of qualified staff and housing to match. Not that long ago, for example, ASML acquired a company close to Berlin to expand there, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be leaving Veldhoven. They are stabilizing their activities there. I think more companies look at it that way.”

Romme does observe that the energy grid and energy transition are important factors, “but sometimes a little pain is necessary to get certain parties to take action.” He also acknowledges that the energy grid is currently not sufficiently prepared for all the new energy suppliers and the sharply increased demand. What’s more, he doesn’t think there is a whole lot of vision of how things can and should be improved. “And that’s a problem that goes beyond the Brainport region; it affects Dutch business as a whole.”

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