New ‘high-energy’ partnership

Partners in more sustainable energy

As two companies at the vanguard of sustainability that are also firmly rooted in their local communities, Eneco and Rabobank share a similar ethos and set of core values. It was only a matter of time before they teamed up together, and their first major joint endeavour as partners is the innovative ZonneHub project. Rabobank’s Guus Hovius and Oscar Nettl sat down with Eneco’s Kees-Jan Rameau and Kirsten Barnhoorn to share their views on the value of cooperation: ‘It gives us the push to embrace the experimental.’

On the day of our meeting at Eneco’s head office in Rotterdam, we learn from a news report on wind energy that European grid managers are looking to connect offshore wind farms through a central island near the Dogger Bank sandbank, located in a shallow area of the North Sea. Relationship Manager Guus Hovius and Oscar Nettl, Sector Head Energy, Telecom and Utilities in Rabobank Large Corporates, are excited about this new development. Rabobank is the market leader in wind energy financing in Europe and North America, a growth market which, as Guus informs us, is worth tens of billions of euros. The investment would also contribute toward achieving the sustainable energy targets under the Dutch Energy Agreement (14% renewable energy by 2020). Eneco Executive Board member Kees-Jan Rameau and Eneco’s Strategic Partner Manager Kirsten Barnhoorn are both well-versed in this area. Eneco – which previously operated exclusively in the Netherlands – began embarking on international ventures some time ago, having opened wind farms in Belgium and Scotland in recent years. Kees-Jan: ‘Our partner in the United Kingdom is the food manufacturer Mars – they purchase the bulk of the wind energy generated by our Moy wind farm. That supply fully covers their demand for energy at their UK production facilities and offices.’

Strategic fit

As Kees-Jan Rameau explains, Eneco makes a point of partnering with such leaders in corporate sustainability as Mars, Unilever, Heineken and Rabobank. The idea is that companies which share a similar DNA can reinforce and support each other with innovative solutions – particularly if their strategies happen to be in sync. This has certainly proved to be the case with Eneco and Rabobank. Kees-Jan tells us that, in addition to being each other’s customers and sustainability leaders, there are other similarities between the two partners. ‘We are both renowned companies with a long and distinguished history and a strong market position, serving millions of customers across the Netherlands,’ he says. ‘Both our companies were established as cooperatives and seek to build relationships with the local community. As the largest supplier of energy to the horticulture sector through our subsidiary AgroEnergy, we have a strong presence in the food and agricultural industry, just like Rabobank.’ Oscar Nettl agrees, and highlights another similarity between the two partners: ‘Like Eneco, Rabobank has also made renewable energy a key international focus area, in addition to food and agriculture.’ He has high hopes for the partnership with Eneco, believing it will prove to be a boon to Rabobank: ‘Banks tend to focus too much on the risks involved – an innovative partner such as Eneco gives us the push we need to overcome our risk aversion and embrace the experimental.’

Foto team
Guus Hovius, Kees-Jan Rameau, Kirsten Barnhoorn and Oscar Nettl

Opportunities map

Kees-Jan reveals that the partnership between Rabobank and Eneco was born at the highest levels of each organisation. The first step as they got the ball rolling on the ambitious new project was to appoint the appropriate contacts, including Kirsten Barnhoorn, Oscar Nettl and Guus Hovius. Kirsten explains how this came about: ‘We sat down for a meeting and created an “opportunities map” outlining our shared business options. We came up with all kinds of fun, innovative ideas, and in a series of innovation sessions we then made a selection, separating the high-potential ideas from the less viable ones.’ 

Although it took both sides some time to develop a feel for each other’s work styles, being open and honest with one another helped them to explore their mutual boundaries and develop a realistic view of the limits and opportunities. An equity fund that Rabobank had facilitated for Eneco, for example, ended up falling through after meeting with objections due to strict regulations for financial products. Another hurdle was the partners’ involvement in Eneco’s Clubkracht project – designed to encourage sports clubs to adopt more sustainable practices – which was terminated after several months. Kees-Jan: ‘Interest in that project was so overwhelming that the subsidy scheme ended up being discontinued after just a few days. There was also the fact that there was a lot of work involved in the project: sports clubs tend to be rather small-scale, and the various locations are all different. On the upside, we did learn a lot from the experience – knowledge we will without a doubt be able to apply in future projects.’

‘King of Cooperatives’

One project that has really taken off for the partners is the innovative ZonneHub project, which enables consumers, irrespective of the type of home they reside in, to purchase solar panels which are installed on other people’s roofs. Kirsten Barnhoorn: ‘We want to promote an increase in the number of homes in the Netherlands with roof-mounted solar panels, but there are some barriers. While surveys reveal that 75% of consumers are interested in using solar energy, the roofs of many homeowners are simply not equipped to accommodate solar systems. The Dutch government stepped in by providing incentives for solar energy not generated on people’s own roofs (known as the Postcoderoosregeling – Ed.). However, this requires that users establish a cooperative – and who would be better suited to advise us on that than Rabobank? They have long been known as the “King of Cooperatives” in the Netherlands.’ 

Teams of specialists on both sides set to work and developed ZonneHub into an affordable and accessible consumer product. The project was piloted in the town of Etten-Leur in North Brabant province last autumn, with the local Rabobank making a roof equipped with 170 solar panels available to users, which ended up being sold in no time at all. Kees-Jan Rameau is not surprised by the high public demand: ‘Of all the renewables, solar energy has the highest degree of acceptance among the public. Participants in the ZonneHub project get to benefit from a number of very favourable terms over a 15-year period and earn back their investment in about ten years.’ Kirsten emphasises that the ZonneHub concept can be extended to roofs beyond those of Rabobank alone: ‘Anyone who chooses to make their roof available will gain in popularity in their neighbourhood and serve as a “hub” of sorts for other users. The next building to host the panels could be another Rabobank building, but it could just as easily be the local town hall.’

Smart thermostat

When ZonneHub gave the partners their first taste of shared success, they knew they were on the right track. Oscar believes the bank and the energy company have a great deal to learn from each other: ‘We’re both faced with the question of how to remain relevant to our customers going forward.’ Kees-Jan: ‘In both the banking industry and the energy sector, the landscape and the role of traditional players is changing fast. We both need to innovate if we are to survive, and that’s one area where we can inspire each other.’ Oscar expresses an interest in Eneco’s pioneering invention Toon, a smart thermostat developed some years ago that is evolving into an all-round ‘smart home’ platform. Toon has the potential to be transformed into a central control unit for energy and all kinds of other functions around the home. ‘We may eventually even incorporate payment options as well, if we find there is a customer demand.’ Guus Hovius sees potential for the two partners in ‘greening’ buildings and residential homes: ‘We could, say, develop a mortgage together especially for people looking to make their home more energy-efficient. You could install smart home equipment and use the data generated to monitor the home. But that’s just one example – the possibilities of what we could do are really endless.’

Strictly business

Something Oscar Nettl highly values about the Rabobank-Eneco alliance is the opportunity for both partners to pick each other’s brains. While Rabobank has a growing need for knowhow on renewable energy – for example when financing innovative sustainable projects – Eneco, as Kees-Jan Rameau explains, frequently runs into issues that call for financial expertise: ‘The whole aspect of fuel, which used to be all-important, has essentially been eliminated with the emergence of renewables – that is, “free” fuel. Our involvement is now mostly restricted to investing in sustainable projects and financing those projects. That represents the cost of energy for us now, and that’s what we’re competing on in the market.’ He expressed an interest in working even more closely with Rabobank, citing the financing of large-scale offshore wind farms as an example. While Oscar is willing to provide his expert input based on a relationship of mutual trust between the partners, he draws the line when it comes to the client relationship, which he feels should remain strictly business at all times: ‘The trick is to be tough when it comes to content and a little softer when it comes to the relationship itself.’

Rabobank + Eneco =

  • ZonneHub. This project enables users to purchase solar panel systems which are installed on the roofs of ‘hosts’ in the neighbourhood. Rabobank helped create the initiative and made the roof of a local Rabobank in the town of Etten-Leur available to users. Eneco’s role in the partnership is to establish energy cooperatives, organise the installation of the solar panels and manage all the paperwork, including the deduction of the solar energy generated from users’ energy bills.
  • Involvement in the Norther Wind Farm, Belgium’s largest offshore wind farm. Eneco owns a 25% stake, while Rabobank backs the project financially.
  • Toon campaign (Eneco): aimed at Rabobank employees and members.