During its 17th-century golden age, the Netherlands was the world’s most enthusiastic exploiter of wind technology. Over 10,000 windmills dotted the landscape; the city walls of Amsterdam were crowned with a row of them. Today many Dutch find the stereotype of their country as the land of windmills irritating—and inaccurate. Wind turbines supplied just 5.2% of the Netherlands’ electricity in 2014, far behind Germany, Spain or Denmark. Renewable sources as a whole make up 4.2% of the country’s energy mix, putting the Netherlands 26th in the European Union, ahead only of Malta and Luxembourg.
That leaves the government in a fix. It has five years to meet an EU-wide mandate to generate 14% of energy from renewable sources. Among other things, it plans to build a lot of new wind turbines. This, however, runs up against the reason why the Netherlands has so few of them: a severe case of not-in-my-backyard syndrome. Almost everywhere new turbines are mooted, locals howl that they will be ugly and noisy. One proposed wind park prompted a group calling itself the Don Quixote Foundation to block a drawbridge on the 32km dike connecting North Holland and Friesland. The far-right Party for Freedom rails against “the sinister green-windmill subsidy complex”.
To minimise local anger, the government has turned to the sea. A national energy accord reached in 2013 calls for new wind parks in the North Sea that could generate 3,450 megawatts, more than triple the country’s current offshore capacity. But these parks are meeting resistance as well. Two of them will be as little as 18km from shore, within sight of beach towns north of The Hague. The town governments say the 200-metre masts will ruin the view and drive away German tourists. They want to push the parks back to an area midway between the Netherlands and Britain. The Dutch government says the more distant site would cost an extra €45m ($50m) per year, in part due to longer cables.
Those costs may be the least of the government’s worries. On June 24th a climate-action group won a suit in a Dutch court arguing that the government’s target for reducing greenhouse gases is not ambitious enough. Current policy would reduce emissions in 2020 to 17% below 1990 levels. But the court ruled that if the world’s governments cut 2020 emissions by anything less than 25%, it will ultimately put Dutch citizens in danger from rising sea levels. Since all governments should meet that 25% reduction, the court reasoned, the Dutch government must do so as well. If the decision is upheld, the government will have to slash emissions even further within five years.
Doing so is not impossible, says Pieter Boot, an economist at the Dutch government’s environmental assessment agency. The agency estimates that if the government fulfills its promises under the 2013 energy accord—which it is not currently on track to do—that could generate half of the necessary reductions. But more renewable energy would also be needed. New wind parks will not be part of the solution, as it would take five years to build them.
Despite the opposition to individual wind parks, polls show that over 70% of Dutch approve of wind energy in principle, a figure similar to Germany. The problem may simply be that the Netherlands is very densely populated; nearly every mast is in someone’s backyard. But other polls show that once turbines are built, local opposition tends to fade. As readers of Don Quixote know, not everyone liked 17th-century windmills either, at first.