Wild West under Dutch soil
By 2050, it will be incredibly busy underground in the Netherlands. Pipelines, motorways, electric cables, buildings and car parks, train and metro tunnels, heating and cooling systems, CO2 storage, everything will go underground.
And the ground under Dutch feet is pretty crowded as it is. Gas extraction, production of drinking water and archaeological sites are already competing for space. To organise all this, the specialist Knowledge Development and Distribution Foundation for Ground Matters (SKB) has recently been revitalised.
In the otherwise over-regulated Netherlands there is, surprisingly, no such thing as spatial planning and underground and subterranean property rights are vague at best. At the same time, leaving the matter to sort itself out is not an option, says the foundation's new managing director, Frank Agterberg:
"We want a certain quality of life, for which we need energy. We use materials giving rise to waste, and the ground has an important role to play in this. For instance if you take energy, it's a matter of guaranteeing a sufficient supply first and foremost, but later it's about sustainable energy, so that whatever you do does not have a lasting net effect."
Water and underground area management
There are other reasons why we have to starting thinking about going underground besides energy. There is simply no more room in the inner cities for extra infrastructure. Trains, metros and car parks will have to go underground. We don't want to lose the scarce urban green spaces we have by building motorways over them; so in Maastricht in the south and in Utrecht, in central Netherlands, they're going underground.
Outside the cities, beauty spots like the so-called Green Heart, within the agglomeration of towns and cities in the West known as the Randstad, are protected; as a result the seven-kilometre HSL tunnel has been built for a new high speed rail link. And, however controversial the storage of CO2 might be, it will have to go in the old gas fields. It's the only place deep enough and safe enough to put it.
At the same time little is known about what effect this will have on subterranean life. The company Bioclear generates clean energy using the ground, but in a way that disturbs subterranean life as little as possible. Managing director Sietze Koening, explains the problems:
"More than 95 percent of all biodiversity on earth is in the ground, All kinds of things go on up to 10 kilometres underground. But we only know about a fraction of it."
Water and underground area management
One of the main objectives of the resurrected SKB is to draw up special regulations. Generally there is no legislation covering this area, and someone has to take it upon themselves to determine who owns the ground for example.
Arno Peekel from the SKB, explains where the problem lies:
"Generally, when you own a piece of land, it is yours down to the depths. But if your neighbour decides to install something underground which uses underground water for instance, then he is allowed to use the water under your land too."
And that can have bizarre consequences. If two companies which have buildings next to one another decide to install a ground source heat pump (GSHP) - which is fast becoming popular - then the heat supply to one company may render the neighbouring company's system useless, if that system is meant to cool the building.
Legislation is also important because when things are built underground, they are usually permanent structures. If the construction of the high-speed rail tunnel had disrupted the level of underground water in the surrounding area, farmers would not have had anyone to complain to if they had been out of pocket as a result.
Whichever way you look at it and however unclear the situation is, the Netherlands will become a three-dimensional country in the decades to come. In Arno Peekel's words: "It is a bit like a Swiss cheese. And, however crazy it sounds, that is a good thing because we really need the ground."