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How a rural Dutch town is working towards sustainability

The municipality of Horst aan de Maas is situated in south-eastern Netherlands, close to the German border. In 2020 it adopted a new local sustainability policy with four main goals: Horst aan de Maas aims to be a fully climate neutral, climate proof, circular and nature-friendly town by 2050. The population of about 42,000 citizens is highly involved in several sustainability projects. Local businesses and many other stakeholders are also involved. In 2019 the local endeavours were awarded with a European Green Leaf Award.

By Sonja Coolen, Horst aan de Maas municipality

Circular economy: improving waste management

Horst aan de Maas started its circular economy efforts with a project centred around waste reduction. In 2010, due to a merger with two smaller municipalities, the municipality grew from 10 to 16 villages. This meant that three different waste collection systems had to be unified. The city administration took this opportunity to futureproof its waste management and make it ready for a more circular economy. The key was to make it easy for citizens to recycle, for example by collecting kitchen waste separately from garden waste. Thanks to the enthusiastic commitment of its residents, Horst aan de Maas had the smallest amount of residual waste per household in the Netherlands for seven years in a row (2012-2018). It also has the highest recycling rate: over 95 per cent of all household waste is recycled.

Transitioning to renewable energy

The goal to become climate neutral is much more of a challenge. Currently, only six per cent of the energy used in Horst aan de Maas is from renewable sources. But we are working to increase this share.

Agriculture in Horst aan de Maas. Credit: Horst aan de Maas municipality

Locations for solar farms and wind turbines are not easy to find in a small and crowded country like The Netherlands. You cannot do this without citizen participation. That’s why we are involving local stakeholders in the search for suitable locations. Lack of free space is also the reason why we are aiming for dual land use. In Horst aan de Maas, the main land use is for agriculture, so combinations of renewable energy and farming are especially welcome.

For example: one of our local blueberry growers is experimenting with solar panels over a blueberry field. We are also aiming for other smart combinations. Like a nature-friendly solar field that improves biodiversity and can serve as a protective buffer for a nature conservation area. Or a solar field that is also used for rainwater retention and infiltration, to prevent flooding and stop groundwater levels dropping.

Keeping the financial benefits local

In order to meet Dutch national goals, the administration is aiming at a financial participation of at least 50% by residents in renewable energy projects. Horst aan de Maas already has a renewable energy cooperative, called Reindonk Energie,  which is led by local people and aims to develop locally-owned energy projects.

Meeting for home owners about solar panels and energy efficiency measures. organized by citizens’ initiative Samen Duurzaam Norbertus. Credit: Horst aan de Maas municipality

Remunicipalisation is another option being considered to increase the share of renewable energy and keep the benefits local. Horst aan de Maas is working with 15 other local authorities to produce a coherent plan of action to produce more renewable energy in the region. This plan will also address grid capacity problems: there is not enough grid capacity to connect all the planned renewable energy projects. The regional action plan will determine priorities. So significantly increasing local renewable energy production is a medium to long term goal.

The heat transition: going from natural gas to all electric heating

The Dutch national climate agreement requires all buildings to be heated without using natural (fossil) gas by 2050. Since almost 90% of Dutch houses use gas for heating this is a huge undertaking. For Horst aan de Maas it means that more than 15,000 houses need to be retrofitted over 30 years, or between 500 and 600 houses each year. In 2021 the municipality will decide on a Heat Transition Plan, which will set out the best alternatives to natural gas for the area.

Kids Climate Conference in Horst aan de Maas in 2019. Credit: Hoorst aan de Maas municipality

There have been local projects with geothermal heat, but uncertainty about the risk of earthquakes in this particular region has put a stop to this. Therefore the solution for most homes and buildings in Horst aan de Maas will be to use electricity for cooking, vastly improve the energy efficiency of the buildings, and then switch to using heat pumps. The Heat Transition Plan will be updated every two years, in order to adapt to technological innovations or other developments, such as a bottom-up initiative from a group of citizens.

EnergieKronenberg: a bottom-up approach towards energy neutrality

In the 450-household village of Kronenberg, such a bottom-up initiative started in 2015. Residents founded ‘EnergieKronenberg’, aiming to make the village energy neutral by 2030. A joint study by the foundation and the municipality in 2020 has shown that ‘all electric’ is the best option for Kronenberg. But this scenario is not easy to implement, because every individual homeowner needs to invest in energy measures.

In 2021 the foundation and the municipality will take the next step by analysing small-scale collective solutions, such as two houses sharing a heat pump. We will determine technical specifications and then make realistic cost estimates to turn all real estate all electric. After that, the best implementation strategy will be decided. This could be individual step-by-step plans that follow the natural cycle of home maintenance and replacement of old devices or it could be a collective strategy with tighter management, focused on collective purchasing power and efficient workflows. The citizens of Kronenberg will have a large say in this, because without their support it will be difficult to continue. Finally, it will be determined which investment concepts offer the most potential and fit best into the chosen strategy.

Climate proofing the town by rainwater harvesting

Another important sustainability goal is to make the municipality climate proof. The effects of climate change are already visible in Horst aan de Maas. The occurrence of extreme rainfall has increased and with it the risks of flooding. At the same time, we’ve seen longer periods of extreme heat and drought, causing problems for citizens, agriculture and nature and also increasing the risk of wildfire.

After performing a climate stress-test, the municipality decided to focus first on preventing the risk of flooding. Financial incentives are given to house owners and businesses who harvest rainwater, for example by collecting it in a rain barrel or pond. This keeps the rainwater out of the sewer system, preventing flooding, and it can be used for watering the garden, mitigating damage from droughts. These efforts are being undertaken in cooperation with other municipalities and the regional water authority.

One climate-proof project of which Horst aan de Maas is particularly proud is its innovative Climate Square, in front of the historic : cultural centre. The innovations are shown in this short video.

Reforming the transport system

E-cars from the municipality. Credit: Horst aan de Maas municipality

Horst aan de Maas has a well-developed cycle network and good public transport and there are different options for ride sharing. But as a rural town, cars are still the most used method of transport over longer distances. In the future there will be more and more electric cars. That’s why we are working on significantly increasing the number of charging stations for both e-cars and e-bikes. The charging stations for cars are adaptable so in future they can be used as part of a smart grid.

To involve citizens in the transition to more sustainable transport forms, the municipality has joined a regional platform called Trendsportal, where residents and transport professionals can share their thoughts and discuss the future of mobility. There have been inspiring meetings to formulate goals and a strategy. We are now implementing different projects, including strengthening the network of charging stations.


Through a wide variety of projects, Horst aan de Maas shows the many different forms that sustainable action can take. Most importantly, local stakeholders, especially residents, are continuously involved in the process, ensuring that the necessary transitions take a participatory shape. This spirit of working together is reflected in the slogan of our sustainability programme: #WeGoGreen!


About the author:

Sonja Coolen is an experienced Sustainability Expert and Policymaker at the municipality of Horst aan de Maas. She has worked in variety of roles at local authorities, such as environmental auditing and waste management. After Horst aan de Maas became the unofficial Dutch Champion of Recycling, Sonja found a new challenge in the energy transition.

This blog article is part of the mPOWER blog series in which cities and towns share how they are building better energy futures. The article was originally published on https://municipalpower.org/articles/how-a-rural-dutch-town-is-working-towards-sustainability/. This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement number 785171.

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