In an “anything goes” era of news and social media, it’s not often that a post jumps off the page. But a recent piece of news about electricity caught my attention. The headline: “Netherlands Trains Now Running on 100% Wind Power”.
Of course, we’ve seen headlines of this type before. For example, in 2015, Burlington, Vermont, became the first city to announce it was running totally on renewable power. That’s true, of course. Burlington’s biggest source of electricity is hydropower imported from across the region. The city also gets about a third of its power from a large biomass plant. The rest is supplied by wind and solar power, which contribute about a fifth of the city’s power. In other words, the two oldest sources of renewable power, water and wood, are carrying most of the burden for Burlington’s renewable achievement, not the sources that might come to mind when people read the headline.
Do the claims about Netherlands trains also require further explanation? You bet.
The claim by the Dutch railway network, Nederlandse Spoorwegen (NS), is almost entirely a sleight of hand. In fact, an investigation by Energy Matters finds that the electrified portion of NS mainly runs on electricity derived from coal and natural gas.
“NS claims 100% wind power because it has a contract with various wind farms to produce enough energy to power its rail system, but this is just an accounting transaction,” writes author Roger Andrews. “Only a small fraction of the power delivered to its trains actually comes from wind.”
What’s the trick? A little more than a tenth of all electricity consumed in the Netherlands comes from wind power, some of which is imported. But none of this wind power is directly connected to the NS rail system. Even the two Dutch wind farms with which NS contracts directly for wind power, Noordoostpolder and Luchterduinen, are tied generally to the Dutch grid and not tied directly into the NS rail system.
Plus, it turns out that about half the electricity NS uses to power its rail system comes from outside of the Netherlands. Some of the nations that supply power to NS such as Germany, Belgium, and Finland, do generate wind power, but only in modest amounts. That means electrons traveling across international borders to help power the NS railway system come in some amount from wind power, but in much larger amounts from non-wind sources.
“Putting these numbers together indicates that only 10-15% of the electricity consumed annually by NS’s electric trains will come from wind, with the rest a mixture that includes mostly Dutch gas and coal plus a small amount of Belgian and German coal, nuclear and lignite – and maybe even a little German solar,” Andrews explains.
When challenged on its claim, NS clarified that only the electrified portion of its system runs completely on wind power. This is about two-thirds of the system. But of course even two-thirds of the NS system doesn’t run “completely” on wind power. The electrons that run the electrified portion of the NS system come from many sources, including wind, but also from coal, natural gas, and nuclear. The truth is that it’s impossible to determine the source of electrons actually moving NS trains down the track. What is clear is that most of those electrons didn’t originate from wind turbines.
There are many reasons, of course, why NS would claim its trains run completely on wind power and even more reasons why many would celebrate this apparently breakthrough. Headlines like this make people feel good. It feels to many like progress. But let’s be real. The evidence speaks for itself. Claims that Dutch trains running entirely on wind power are way off track.