Seven pressing questions for Deerns CEO, Jan Karel Mak “My view is yes, we are going to make it”

Energy-neutral buildings could have been the most natural thing in the world for a long time by now. There are no major technical obstacles, or any financial ones, for that matter. According to Jan Karel Mak, CEO of Deerns Group, however, there are two factors that determine whether a breakthrough will be forthcoming any time soon: willing investors, and a government that clears away institutional obstacles. "We need less talk and fewer compromises that ultimately achieve little. After the flooding disaster of 1953 in the Netherlands, some people had to accept the fact that dikes were raised, blocking their view. This was done because a determined government allowed the public interest to prevail - the same should happen now with making energy sustainable.” 

Climate Change Conference: no more than two degrees

During the recent Climate Change Conference in Paris, two hundred countries agreed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in order to restrict global warming to two degrees, and preferably to no more than 1.5 degrees. The EU is seeking to lower CO2 emissions by 40% by 2030 (compared to 1990). In this article, Jan Karel Mak sets out his vision on energy saving in built-up areas, on the basis of seven ‘pressing’ questions.

1. Are you reassured by the results of the Climate Change Conference?

“Partly. In order to achieve the hoped-for maximum of a 1.5-degree rise in temperature, a large proportion of the reserves of fossil fuels will have to remain in the ground. However, the oil companies continue to pump away. The solution has to come from every possible front - innovative businesses, citizens with initiatives, local authorities, provincial governments, and the central government. The central government must set much clearer parameters; it should seize the bull by the horns and not leave decision-making on energy policy to ever-changing groups and stakeholders, which is what is happening at the moment.” Energy is currently very heavily taxed – including energy from renewable sources, while at the same time there is not even a CO2 tax. A complete change is therefore the most logical option.

2. What source of renewable energy do you prefer?

“Wind from the sea, from the land, from the sun, fertilizer, new-generation nuclear energy - it is not a question of ‘either...or’, but ‘both...and’; it is a simple matter of using all the options available to us. The very-first ‘energy source’, though, is saving - ‘negawatts’. After all, you don’t have to generate what you don’t use. Energy storage is also becoming increasingly important. Buffer capacity is becoming very important where there are many sustainable sources - in accumulators, thermal, or in gravitational energy (such as pumping water). Smartly linking generation, buffering, and consumption at the right scale - that is what will be key.”

3. If the government is not performing adequately, what can the ‘market’ do?

“At Deerns, we have been committed to sustainability for years. I am convinced that market forces will prevail in this area too. The value of buildings increases the more energy-efficient they are. The price of oil is now ridiculously low because it takes no account of the cost to the climate - there is no CO2-related pricing. But if this does come, then the payback period for sustainable solutions will be very short. Moreover, now that sustainable solutions are increasingly becoming the norm, prices are already falling - look at the enormous decrease in the price of solar cells, for example. This means that sustainable housing is becoming more and more attractive from a financial point of view.”

4. What is already possible today?

“A smart combination of technology and management has resulted in our solutions significantly reducing energy consumptions in buildings – the new data centre on the Eemshaven and The Edge office building on the Amsterdam Zuidas are just two outstanding examples. In all our designs, low energy consumption goes hand-in-hand with greater user comfort, flexibility, and safety, because we use the internet as much as possible for the purpose of running a building. It is therefore not just a matter of keeping an eye on the energy meter, but also of having a more pleasant, more comfortable and safer building that is easier to maintain. We should be looking beyond just new build, too: 99% of property that will be emitting CO2 in the next few decades has already been built.

Fortunately we are able to generate energy savings in existing building situations that are designed and tailored to each individual building and its surroundings. We can put together a range of solutions with different payback periods; that is essential, because although reducing greenhouse gas emissions is important to many organisations, it is not the most important thing for them. They regard lower energy consumption in terms of cutting costs. It should also be pointed out that there is another incentive, which relates to national and international politics - reducing dependency on unstable regimes (the Middle East, Russia). To give an example: the Republicans in the US reject the term ‘climate change’, but they warmly welcome sustainability-related interventions under the motto ‘energy independence’.

5. What about affordability?

“Take housing, for example. A new energy-neutral home costs around €10,000 more than a traditional one. Depending on the technology you use (varying from solar panels to extremely good insulation), buyers can expect to earn that back in five to ten years. If the energy economy is steered in the right direction and CO2 emissions are factored into pricing levels at a realistic level - €100 or 120 per ton, say - that would of course help. Regrettably, the current system of CO2 emission rights does not work, because those who emit the most obtained their CO2 rights more or less for nothing. And incidentally, all those local authorities with loss-making land positions make the land under new build homes so expensive that any sustainability is unaffordable, especially when the current restrictions on mortgages are taken into account. Higher CO2-related price levels would only be effective if they were applied internationally - something that should be implemented as soon as possible - but the price of land and mortgage restrictions are ‘internal’ matters.”

6. So energy saving is about common sense and not just ‘charity’?

“Nothing to do with charity. You can actually earn good money with sustainability. Making an economy sustainable produces billions, according to calculations by McKinsey. However, individual investors, like pension funds, will only commit if they know that the calculations are accurate. They have to be verifiable and properly certified. Certifying sustainability also gives firms an additional incentive to further maximise their sustainability efforts. And of course the certification requirements will have to be tightened on a regular basis, otherwise you will get a situation like that with fridges, all of which are AAA+++ nowadays. It is similar to government tenders that we put in for, and the notional lowering of the registration price that you gain by displaying sustainable behaviour - such requirements do not really mean very much anymore.

7. The key question - are we going to make it?

“I am an optimist by nature. “So my view is yes, we are going to make it. But it’s going to be a close-run thing. For many people, today’s problems and those of their own immediate environment are simply more pressing than those of tomorrow or of the wider world. The decision to erect the delta dikes was, in that sense, easier to take than the issue facing us today. Nonetheless, the transition from a ‘fossil’ society to a ‘carbon-free’ one is underway. How exactly the process will progress is unknown, but sitting on the sidelines is not an option. We will all have to do our utmost. We owe it to future generations.”

Jan Karel Mak

Jan Karel Mak, who was born in Amsterdam in 1957, studied environmental hygiene in Wageningen and at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston. He has been in charge at Deerns since 2001, which has been an international group since 2013. During this time, the profile of Deerns as a designer of sustainable technical infrastructures has become ever-more prominent, especially in the area of actual energy savings and limiting the greenhouse effect – in practice, and not just in glossy brochures. Mak says, “That is a genuine Deerns USP.”

14 June 2016

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