GRONINGEN – Around the world earthquakes cause disaster and force economies into downfall. Earthquakes in and around Groningen in the Netherlands have proven extremely damaging, but have also opened up the region to unprecedented economic potential and a drive for an innovative economy supported by green energy.
“I don’t think any of this would have been possible without the earthquakes”, says Marco Smit, director of Economic Board Groningen, in his office that overlooks Groningen’s high-tech university campus.
The earthquakes, caused by natural gas drilling from NAM (half Shell and half Exxon-Mobil), have caused houses to collapse, families to move away from their roots and desperate protests. But it has also given rise to the realisation among the national government, local governments and businesses that Groningen could not continue relying on natural gas to support its economy.
In order to move away from a gas-based economy and not lose countless jobs in the process, a number of initiatives were started. Among them was the Economic Board Groningen, which manages a fund of about 100 million euros independently. “The money was invested by several partners like the province and drilling company NAM,” says Smit.
The role of the Economic Board is not only to attract businesses from across the globe to settle in Groningen; due to the earthquakes and economic status of the province, most banks refuse to give loans to aspiring entrepreneurs. The Economic Board has a fund that is willing to give very high risk loans in order to jumpstart the creation of businesses in Groningen.
This effort has already led to a rise in economic activity in Groningen. Jobs in construction become available as the cracks and damaged houses needed to be repaired, Google came to the Eemshaven with a large Datacenter and IBM build a major Innovation Center linked to Groningen’s University.
In April 2016 Tesla’s owner and director Elon Musk opened up the possibility of a second Tesla car factory in Europe. Many countries and regions, among them Groningen, were quick to respond. Marco Smit is realistic but still thinks Groningen is among the top 10 likely places for the factory. “We have plenty of space to build such a factory, our two seaports (Delfzijl and Eemshaven) supply infrastructure, we are close to big markets like Germany. In the Netherlands Tesla can make profitable tax deals and most importantly for Tesla, we can supply green energy”, says Smit of the province’s chances of attracting the Californian electric car builder.
The green vicious cycle
Companies like Google and Tesla treasure green and sustainable energy. Harm Post, director of Seaports Groningen, realises this. “We have already built about 700 of the 2,500 windmills we hope to build in the North Sea”, he boasts about the ongoing sustainable projects. “Besides the fact that a lot of trans-Atlantic data cables join in the Eemshaven, our projects to ‘green’ the harbour were one of the main factors that attracted Google to settle in the Eemshaven”. According to Post they are discussing with many undisclosed international companies who are all increasingly interested in using Dutch produced ‘Orange’ green energy.
One of the many challenges facing Groningen is the lack of a technically educated workforce. Seaports Groningen and governments have banded together in large projects to re-educate the workforce. “It is about being capable of thinking on a high level. A lawyer could become a process operator in just two years. He just needs to want it”, Post tells.
“It’s a vicious cycle. Green energy draws companies, who allow for more investment in green energy and that draws in more companies,” Jeroen Bakker, green energy project manager at the Province of Groningen, tells. Currently 14,2 percent of Groningen’s energy consumption is sustainable, while the Dutch average is 5 percent.
Bakker also feels like the earthquakes have literally shaken up politics and public opinion to the point where everybody realises they can’t just rely on gas for their economic future. Until 2014 the NAM extracted about 44 trucks-worth of gas every second. This led to about 80 percent of the total gas reserve being extracted at this point and even with reduced extraction the gas fields won’t last far beyond 2040. If Groningen doesn’t rethink its economy Bakker sees a grim future for the province.
Claims that the new economy would lead to more unemployment are total lies according to Bakker. “The gas extraction does not require a huge workforce. Building, maintaining and researching solar panels and windmills does, however, supply jobs for a far larger amount of people. For example: offshore windmills need about one employee per two megawatts, the current 7,000 produced megawatts already supply 3,500 jobs by itself.”
The impending super-earthquake
There is broad support in local politics, but there is a group of people that thinks all this is useless. “I don’t know how these big companies were persuaded to come to Groningen, but we anticipate a massive earthquake that will render all this progress useless and cause an evacuation of Northern Groningen,” says Pi van Weert from action group Schokkend Groningen.
The action group gained prominence during the large demonstrations against the gas extraction and the government’s laid back response to the worries of people in Groningen. Its claims are supported by several engineers, some of them having worked at NAM previously, but their main scientific backer refused to give a statement. All the other sources naturally dismissed the claims of an impending super-earthquake.
Until the super earthquake happens, Marco Smit sees only opportunities for Groningen. “Out of the despair and misery caused by the earthquakes came something special. An opportunity for Groningen to become a leading innovator and green energy producer. Something that would previously be unthinkable for an poor, rural and earthquake ridden region.”
Article contributed by Alexander Hendriks; main image by Francisca Velasco