Carbon-negative regional roads – the road to energy transition
The South Holland provincial authority is looking for ways to make the energy transition towards carbon neutrality a standard consideration in all its infrastructure management and maintenance activities. The province wants innovation to be a structural part of these activities, which has already produced the ‘N211 generates energy’ and ‘N470 generates energy’ projects.
The South Holland provincial authority is the regional government in the western part of the Netherlands. Of the Netherlands’ twelve provinces, South Holland is the most urbanized one. And with a population of 3.5 million, South Holland is also the most densely populated province. The provincial authority’s remit includes urban planning and infrastructure maintenance on a regional level.
The core of the transition to carbon neutrality in our consumption of energy is not merely to ‘pursue product innovation’ to switch to different energy sources, but also lies in the innovation of the underlying process. South Holland’s Infrastructure Management Service builds and takes care of day-to-day and major maintenance of the province’s infrastructure. On the one hand, using the same paving for all of the province’s five kilometers of roads enables the Infrastructure Management Service to work a lot more efficiently. But on the other hand, having the same asphalt everywhere could also mean little room for innovation.
And yet, South Holland has come up with the following solution to still be able to innovate: roads that need major maintenance are designated as project roads for the energy transition, where there is room for innovation and successes are scaled up. So, when the N211 and N470 regional roads were up for major maintenance, the focus was on sustainability. For the provincial authority, it was a genuine opportunity to innovate, without taking excessive risk. But they did not stop at product innovation, changing also the internal working methods. A road management service that alongside pure road maintenance also pursues climate targets, that is quite a switch.
At a speed dating event, innovative startups and civil engineering contractors were given the opportunity to meet each other. BAM, the contractor that was ultimately selected to upgrade the N211 road, involved several startups in their tender, enabling the use of a total of 21 innovations. The major contractors have the knowledge and experience required when it comes to building and managing roads that the innovative startups lack. In this way, the procurement procedure does not restrict tendering parties but instead offers companies opportunities to engage with each other and innovate together. On and alongside the N211 road, experiments are run with sustainable product innovations that both generate and save energy. Cylinder-shaped solar panels on lampposts by the side of the road, for example, provide solar-powered street lighting. Driven by the ambition to cut carbon emissions from infrastructure management activities, the officials responsible at the South Holland provincial authority (the district head, project managers and staff, i.e. nearly three hundred persons altogether) took stock of innovation opportunities at the Infrastructure Management Service, while also looking at any innovations that had already been implemented.
They identified a vast array of innovations, including the switch to LED lights that use 40 percent less energy and the use of ground-coupled heat exchangers to extend the life span of the asphalt because it reduces expansion and contraction of road surfaces. The amount of salt that is scattered on the road when it gets icy in winter has been reduced thanks to software that mixes the exact salt solution for road de-icing, achieving zero salt wastage, and the sheet piling that has been added alongside the road is less prone to oxidization, while the asphalt produces less noise.
The province is also a launching customer to smaller organizations with a promising, but as yet not a market-ready product, giving them the opportunity to test their product and develop it further. One example is a pilot project along the N470 road that sees tech pioneer Plant-E generate electricity from living plants by the roadside. They do this by using the electrons that microorganisms release into the soil when breaking down plants’ organic material.
Thanks to South Holland’s willingness to be a launching customer, Plant-E got its first opportunity to put its revolutionary solution into practice. In the future, it may just be possible to use electricity generated in this way to power traffic lights. This is green power in the most literal sense of the word.
What Makes Your Project Innovative?
The South Holland Infrastructure Management Service works on two tracks, focusing both on product and process innovations. Process innovations include changes to asset plans, schedules of requirements, reference documents, and handbooks. Aside from that, procurement procedures are a key resource in promoting innovation. The province’s procurement practices now include a competition-oriented dialogue, where contractors are selected during the preselection phase based on their innovation capacity and the extent to which they work together with supply chain partners. In consultation with these contractors, the objectives and specifications for the contract are subsequently defined. Selection is furthermore based on carbon reduction targets and potential for upscaling, as well as on contractors’ ideas for trials. Quality represented 75 percent of the selection decision, while the price accounted for 25 percent.
What is the current status of your innovation?
All work on the N211 road has now been completed, and the upgraded road is open to traffic. Work on the N470 road is still ongoing, including some revolutionary innovations. They are building a so-called ‘Energy Wall’, a noise barrier that generates electricity through built-in solar panels and tiny wind turbines. The electricity generated is fed into a direct current network that enables instant use of the electricity and ensures that less electricity is lost. It is the first time ever that this technology is used on this kind of scale in an infrastructure project.
The 21 innovations incorporated into the N211 road are on schedule to produce the targeted savings. Within a time span of only one year, the 4,000 tonnes of CO2 released by maintenance work on the road has already been offset. The expectation is, therefore, that the N211 road will produce the promised carbon reduction by 13,000 tonnes over the term specified.
Collaborations & Partnerships
Innovative startups, civil engineering contractors and civil servants from Infrastructure Management worked together to upgrade the two provincial roads and design and implement innovative solutions to cut carbon emissions.
Management played a key role, with managers taking a risk and showing courage in abandoning the current structure. It gave employees space to get to work on the specific fulfillment of the vision. The informal network of the former district head also played a key role.
Users, Stakeholders & Beneficiaries
An important stakeholder was the relevant member of the provincial executive, who commissioned the project. The project appealed to a number of issues he found very important and he supported the innovative way of working.
Results, Outcomes & Impacts
On a national scale, the province of South Holland is a pioneer in the structural embedding of sustainability in its organization. As far as we know, the N211 road is the world’s first carbon-negative road. That said, the N211 and N470 roads were merely projects intended to assess the practical feasibility of certain innovations. In the case of the N211 road, the various innovations have really proven their worth. The next step is to scale them up to all other road maintenance and management across the province. For all new projects, the province has set the requirement that they must produce a carbon reduction of at least 25%. Sustainability and innovation have thus become a structural part of regular activities.
Challenges and Failures
The main challenge was how to maximize carbon reduction in the management and maintenance of South Holland’s provincial roads. It called for a different way of partnering with the market and ultimately led to a public procurement process that is based on carbon reduction targets.
Working without existing specifications for infrastructure projects turned out to be unnerving. The provincial authority had no previous experience with similar projects and there was no policy to base decisions on or to fall back on. Step by step, the provincial authority figured out which measures were feasible and how the carbon reduction target could be reached.
Later, the challenge was to embed innovation as a structural function at the organization and to make innovative working methods part of regular work processes. Managing and monitoring the innovations that were incorporated into the road upgrade meant that special management contracts and adequate handover to the contractor were needed.
Conditions for Success
An important success factor was that the provincial authority teamed up with the market is looking for innovative solutions. The provincial authority brought major contractors and startups together and changed the procurement procedure. It forced these parties to collaborate, but also to meet carbon reduction targets and enter into performance agreements.
Given that the provincial authority worked based on a performance agreement, innovative measures were interchangeable. The contractor had scope to come up with other solutions during the term of the agreement, as long as they met the agreed performance target, i.e. carbon reduction.
With the upgraded N211 and N470 provincial roads, the provincial authority has tied in well with the points that mattered to the administrative commissioning party, i.e. the responsible member of the provincial executive. The project team was committed to making the projects a success and looked for collaboration across departmental boundaries.
Other countries can also use the innovations that were used in the upgrade of the N211 and N470 provincial roads. Which innovation would be the best fit in which area depends on the climate and the soil. An area with soft soil, such as the Netherlands, will lend itself well to thermal storage because it is relatively easy to drill into the subsoil. At the same time, however, the softer soil also means that roads in the Netherlands sooner need maintenance. In countries with hard soil, roads last a lot longer, meaning they will not need an upgrade as quickly. Innovations can, therefore, pay off for much longer there. There are also applications based on wind power that are relevant to particularly windy countries. In southern countries, it is far more attractive to use innovations based on solar power. These will yield much more there than they do in the Netherlands.
One important lesson the provincial authority has learned is that innovation does not always need to lead to success, but that the process of innovation in itself is already a form of success. This is the perspective from which the innovations materialized.
The carbon reduction target has meanwhile been raised beyond the level that the provincial authority had initially set. This was made possible by innovations by the market. Seeing the market as a partner and getting different parties (large contractors and startups) together is what ultimately laid the foundation for this.
The projects have produced multiple outcomes (a road upgrade, economic development, a stimulus for innovation in the market, contribution to the energy transition). This accumulation of positive outcomes has a strong engaging effect, across party political lines.
A road is more than just a connection between A and B. The use of innovative solutions can turn a road into a power plant, which is a completely different purpose.
To make innovation a structural thing at the organization, you need a policy, projects (implementation), and management to go hand in hand. New solutions that were conceived at the project level also needed to be incorporated into the province’s policy and conveyed properly to the management department.