By Molly Douglas, Sander de la Rambelje, and Mart Duitemeijer
Holland Innovation Network, Boston

The 2015 Paris Climate Agreement set clear targets to limit global warming: keep it well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, ideally halting at 1.5°C.

Greta Thunberg’s speech at this September’s UN Climate Action Summit reminded us that emissions must be cut by 50 percent within the decade to stay below the 1.5°C goal. Achieving this requires collective action, fueled by inspiration, will power, and innovation. Where there is challenge, there is always opportunity, and the City of Boston is meeting the call with an updated Climate Action Plan striving for carbon neutrality by 2050.

The Netherlands is making a corresponding shift in climate policy gears. In May, the Urgenda Climate Case came to a resolution, with the Hague Court of Appeal upholding the Hague District Court’s order that the government strengthen its climate commitments, as a duty of care to the Dutch people.

This September, the government decided to shutter natural gas production in the Gronigen field (the largest in Europe) by 2022. In tandem, and the biggest step of all, the government committed to cutting carbon emissions 49 percent by 2030 and 95 percent (near carbon neutrality) by 2050.

Where imperative becomes opportunity: the built environment

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2018 Special Report: Global Warming of 1.5 ºC maps the way forward. To get on top of the 1.5°C goal, “rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and infrastructure (including transport and buildings), and industrial systems” are required.

In this mix, reducing building energy consumption represents a major opportunity. Per the International Energy Agency, the buildings sector alone accounts for 36 percent of the world’s final energy consumption and close to 40 percent of total CO2 emissions.

Our cities, the seat of the built environment, are only continuing to swell. Instead of denying the tide, we can be Dutch about it: work with the flow and innovate around the flood.

Employing energy-efficient design approaches and technologies to constructing new and retrofitting existing buildings is a surefire way to reduce their carbon footprint and, at the same time, yield enormous cost savings. Echoing UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, this is where it gets exciting.

There are four vectors to make buildings cleaner: heating, cooling, lighting, and water. Beyond simple ad-hoc addition of new technologies, deep retrofitting significantly improves a building’s overall energy performance from between 30 percent and 50 percent. This is done through comprehensive analysis of the whole building and highly integrated use of innovative design, construction techniques, materials, and smart clean technologies to increase its efficiency, as well as structural integrity. Think, for example, of cutting-edge energy sensing and control technologies that, through continuous data collection, can enable close system monitoring and real-time fine calibration across the four vectors.

Deep retrofits really take off in cities where there’s a confluence of climate pressures and pro-resilience government incentives, relatively high energy pricing, city-wide emissions restrictions, energy efficiency certification, subsidies and tax breaks for deep retrofits, and developers and technologists working with government and communities to meet sustainability objectives.

Smart cleantech has blossomed at this confluence, yielding an incredible array of big and small solutions that can, employed together, reduce the resource intensity and environmental impact of our buildings.

The Dutch do it better

From sustainable design to plug-and-play component solutions, the Dutch do buildings and cleantech better. They’ve had plenty of cause to hone their craft. In a nation that prizes modern design and sustainability and is home to historic cities that need to be supported to age gracefully, Dutch cities are also contending with an influx of young professionals, tough housing markets, and little land for new commercial and residential construction.

Dutch innovators are starting to export to the United States the expertise they’ve developed in this environment. OVG Real Estate and subsidiary Edge Technologies, founded by Coen van Oostrom, comprise a standout example of a Dutch firm already making waves in the US. Following construction of The Edge, then the world’s smartest and greenest office building, in Amsterdam, Unilever commissioned the group to retrofit its US HQ in New Jersey. OVG took the contract head-on and pushed for an incredibly ambitious retrofit.

To secure Unilever’s buy-in, OVG guaranteed, via a 10-year “green deal,” that the retrofit would halve the building’s carbon emissions and water consumption. If OVG doesn’t meet the terms, it will swallow the cost. Not only is OVG confident that targets will be met, but it is also prepared to repeat this strategy in the name of sustainability.

Building on Boston’s past

Boston faces many of the same climate, population, and infrastructure challenges as the Netherlands. Also aiming for carbon neutrality by 2050, the city is increasingly held up as a model of urban climate resilience, marked by its ongoing mitigation and adaptation initiative Climate Ready Boston.

Debuting the city’s updated Climate Action Plan this October, Mayor Marty Walsh signaled a pivotal role for the built environment in Boston’s transformation.

The plan highlights that “Boston’s buildings account for approximately 71 percent of community carbon emissions and represent the greats opportunity for emissions reduction. Decarbonizing Boston’s building sector depends on shifting to zero net carbon new construction by 2030 and retrofitting and electrifying at least 80 percent of existing buildings over the next 30 years.”

In new construction, Boston’s built environment is forecast to grow 122 million square feet by 2050. But 85 percent of the floor space that will exist in 2050 already exists. Today, 55 percent of the buildings in the city were constructed before 1940, so the real opportunity here is in retrofitting.

“For existing buildings, widespread deep energy retrofits and fossil fuel-free heating and hot water systems are the most effective carbon reduction strategies,” the climate report reads. “…To reach carbon neutrality, four out of five buildings in Boston will need to implement deep energy retrofits and electrification by 2050. Deep energy retrofits can reduce citywide emission by up to 40 percent using commercially available technologies.”

First steps in this direction will be made by the City of Boston, which is committing itself to retrofitting its municipal buildings.

Boston calling

The Holland Innovation Network, in partnership with InnovationQuarter, FME, and Cleantech Scandinavia, organized a cleantech mission with a focus on sustainable building and energy systems to Boston in September.

The Holland Innovation Network, in partnership with InnovationQuarter, FME, and Cleantech Scandinavia, organized a cleantech mission with a focus on sustainable building and energy systems to Boston in September.

Nine Dutch companies looking to establish or expand their business in the US joined the mission. The solutions they brought to the table ranged from thermal energy storage systems to rooftop rainwater harvesting to circular building materials.

The four-day program included site visits focused on sustainability to major redevelopment projects, including Suffolk Downs, and pitches to potential partners, suppliers, and customers at Greentown Labs, the largest cleantech startup incubator in the United States.

They also engaged in discussion with municipal and nonprofit leaders, including A Better City and the Boston Housing Authority, on sustainable planning policy and Boston’s future development needs.

By the end of the week, it became clear that ability to address imminent infrastructural risks, such as flooding and leaking gas pipes, was the most obvious point of entry for Dutch cleantech solutions. Thinking ahead, the theme to which we continually returned was the need for deep retrofits in commercial, residential, and mix-used buildings.

Right in the middle, between Boston’s short-term needs and long-term goals, lies a multitude of opportunities for Dutch innovators who are ready to hop the Atlantic.

Boston’s built environment is open for business, and its developers and municipal authorities are looking for serious players.

So, what do you think? Can Dutch innovators corner this market? Can they prove the Dutch really do it better?