THE ENVIRONMENTAL MOVEMENT Greenpeace is known to be a thorn in Vattenfall’s side – through actions such as lignite mining protests, lawsuits and nuclear plant trespassing. But behind the scenes, the relation-ship is less hostile.

In November last year, a study was published in Amsterdam on the incentives needed to significantly increase the share of wind and solar power in the Netherlands by 2030. The most remarkable thing about the study was that it was the result of a cooperation between two former rivals: Nuon and Greenpeace.

Only a few years earlier in 2011, Nuon had been planning a coal gasification plant called Magnum in the far north of the Netherlands. This was wildly protested by Greenpeace and other non-governmental organisations (NGOs), who appealed against the permit issued to Nuon by the government. Instead of waiting for a court case and a judge’s verdict, Nuon negotiated with the NGOs. This resulted in the plant being redesigned to become a natural-gas facility that emits less carbon than a coal gasification plant. Furthermore, it brought about an agreement between Nuon and Greenpeace to carry out a joint study on renewable power in the Netherlands.

“For quite a long time the joint study was quite a delicate issue for our organisations,” Stijn van den Heuvel, Head of Public and Regulatory Affairs and Media Relations for the Netherlands, recalls.

“One concern was that Nuon would end up in endless discussions on the speed of the transition to renewable energies, the role of fossil fuels in the energy mix, the role of biomass also, and the closure date of our last coal plant. Greenpeace was not so eager to participate either. But last year we all decided to give it a try and it turned out that we had quite similar visions for the future.”

Regular discussions
The joint study is not the only example of a good relationship between Vattenfall/Nuon and the environmental movement. Contrary to what one might think, Vattenfall has regular talks and meetings with Greenpeace and other NGOs.

In Vattenfall’s Brussels office, round-table discussions are arranged on various topics on a regular basis, to which Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) are usually invited, along with other stakeholders.

Another example is the coal sourcing issue. Vattenfall regularly meets with the Swedish aid organisation Forum Syd, the Dutch NGO PAX, and the German organisation Urgewald to discuss issues arising around coal.

Vattenfall can learn 
“The main point of these talks is to learn from each other and create clarity about what we agree or disagree on and why,” says Sabine Froning, Head of Public and Regulatory Affairs and Stakeholder Relations on Group level at Vattenfall.

“NGOs are strong public opinion drivers. Just think of the renewables issue; NGOs have been the driving force here. We must realise that they are often seen as being more trustworthy than we are. Through them, we can learn how others see us and what their expectations of us are. NGOs can be seen as a sort of sparring partner.”

But in this context, how do you view the fact that some of the members of these organisations also use illegal actions to make their point, such as Greenpeace trespassing on Vattenfall’s nuclear plant property in Forsmark in 2012?

“We obviously don’t endorse civil disobedience” says Froning. “But by keeping the relationship open, we have the chance to discuss these matters and explain our view. In the best case scenario, open discussion happens before the issues turn into actions or protests that jeopardise safety of activists or employees.”

Greenpeace: “Nuon strengthens our message”
Greenpeace’s relationship with Vattenfall/Nuon varies across the different markets. In Sweden and Germany, relations have been more confrontational, mainly because of issues to do with lignite, but also due to the use of coal and nuclear power. In the Netherlands, Greenpeace has chosen a slightly different way of achieving its goals according to Joris Wijnhoven, campaign leader for Greenpeace Netherlands.

Why is Greenpeace cooperating with Nuon?

Greenpeace cooperates with every company that is seriously committed to the necessary transition to renewable energy. Although Nuon still owns a coal plant, they are prepared to talk about changing, and they are a growing player on the renewable energy market. We think it is possible to oppose their coal plant and cooperate with them at the same time.

What are the advantages of teaming up with an energy company?

Simple: the fact that Greenpeace pledges for a specific energy policy is one thing, but when an energy company like Nuon says the same, it strengthens the message.

Would you consider another similar cooperation in the future?

If Nuon should decide to close their last coal plant in particular, the company would be a partner for Greenpeace in the battle for more renewable energy, yes.

What reactions have you got from your peers outside the Netherlands to this cooperation?

You are the first external stakeholder to ask this. The reactions in our own international organisation were very positive.

How do you work to influence Nuon and other energy companies in the Netherlands?

In 2013, 47 stakeholders (including the government, the energy companies, the unions, the employer organisations and NGOs like Greenpeace) made a deal on the energy policy for the next ten years.  Making a deal is important, but the proof of the pudding is in the eating. So we regularly meet with all the partners of this energy deal, including Nuon, to work on the implementation of all the issues.

Do you have examples of when you have succeeded in influencing energy companies?

As we speak, the main discourse about energy-politics in the Netherlands is about closing the last five coal plants we have. We consider it as a success that Nuon is interested in these talks, rather than companies like E.ON or RWE for instance.

How would you describe your relations with Nuon today?

A bit equivocal. On the one hand, we recognise that there is more and more evidence of Nuon changing from a company that is big in coal and gas into a company that only wants to invest in renewable energy. On the other hand, as long as their coal plant is alive and kicking, this new image is not convincing.

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