Dutch-led renewable energy venture sets standard
Dutch authorities were initially sceptical about funding the Minewater project, but with strong local support this unusual renewable energy initiative succeeded in securing EU regional money and went on to become a blueprint for similar models elsewhere in Europe.
When employees of the Dutch city Heerlen in 2004 began investigating ways to reduce the city's dependence on fossil fuels, a coal mine was not necessarily the most obvious place to start. However, Elianne Demollin-Schneiders, the city's energy management coordinator, had conducted research in other provinces, and was convinced that the floodwater trapped in Heerlen's abandoned coal mines could lead to an innovative new "green energy" source. She believed the geothermal energy potential of the warm water trapped deep (up to 825 metres) in the disused mines could be used as a cheap way to heat and cool local buildings. Speaking to EurActiv, Demollin-Schneiders explained that EU funding authorities were initially a little sceptical about the proposal, describing it as a "risky " undertaking. However, they agreed to finance a feasibility study to assess whether the project could work, and when they were satisfied with the results, significant amounts of Interreg (see 'Background') funds were made available. In total, some 20 million euros were spent on the 'Minewater' project, which included Heerlen and a disused mining area in Scotland called Shawfairn.
Understanding local level – key to a lasting project?
Demollin-Schneiders, described by Interreg authorities as "the founding mother" of Minewater, is adamant that the willingness of European authorities to back the project was the driver of its coming to life. Some EU regional funds are reserved specifically for this type of green project, which is not always the case with national funding, she explained. Among the authorities Heerlen approached, "only Interreg IIIB was very positive," she argued, adding that " without this funding, the project would not have become a reality". Indeed, Minewater's leaders believe it is in some ways emblematic of Interreg being " ahead of its time" in terms of backing sustainable energy projects. What differentiates this story from many other EU projects is that it was designed to continue long after the EU funds dried up, a point the project leaders are quick to stress.
A second key ingredient was the fact that the project leaders succeeded in winning the support of both local authorities and public opinion. "We understood the local development priorities," explains Demollin-Schneiders, whose team on the ground could navigate the sometimes complex bureaucracies that exist at the local municipal level. Many projects go wrong because this local knowledge is missing, she argued, adding that EU authorities would do well to grasp this point. "The vacuum between the European level and the local level is too big," she claimed, adding that "EU policymakers need to develop a better understanding of how decisions are made at the local level - if they're not willing to do so, they're not real policymakers, but are stuck in an ivory tower". However, she also believes understanding needs to come from both sides. "I think that citizens are too spoiled and the local level needs to take responsibility for becoming more involved," she argued, concluding that "it would be very wise if people who control regional policy at the local level looked more at the long-term, to find ways to make projects sustainable beyond the lifespan that EU programmes give them". Minewater, which is still operational today having ended its EU project lifespan in 2008, has become a model for similar projects elsewhere, such as a recent development in Asturias, Spain. The philosophy of this Spanish project – to use local resources and expertise – comes from Minewater's blueprint, Demollin-Schneiders notes proudly.