Greenovation or frustration? Bernhard Nurseries has the answer

Bram Bernhard took to the Holland House stage at Trade Fair Aalsmeer on Wednesday, 3 November 2021, to accept the Greenovation award from Royal FloraHolland boss Stefan van Schilfgaarde.

Dutch-based ornamentals grower Bernhard Nurseries recently won the 2021 Royal FloraHolland Greenovation Award. While Bram Bernhard sees the prestigious prize as a boost for the company’s geothermal and solar projects, he does not always feel rightly rewarded for helping cut emissions. FCI reports in its January 2022 edition.

Three generations Bernhard. Left to right Bram jr, Bram sr. and his grandson William, and Simon Bernhard. Photo credit: Plantion-VVB van Bree.

Bernhard Nurseries is a third-generation cut rose, potted phalaenopsis and bedding plant grower in Flevoland, the Netherlands’ ‘newest’ province, mainly created on post-WWII land reclaimed from the sea. The company grows three million phalaenopsis in 12cm pots for the higher end of the market, a wide range of five million bedding and patio plants, plus 25 million stems of ‘Avalanche+’ roses under a combined 25ha of glass.

At Bernhard Nurseries, run by brothers Bram and Simon Bernhard, a high level of sustainability (and thus a minimal footprint on the environment) is achieved through several operational practices. Such as integrated pest management systems eliminating the need for chemicals and solar electricity production combined with geothermal energy used to heat the nursery’s greenhouses where Elegant phalaenopsis occupy pride of place.

An extremely complex endeavour

Set against a backdrop of applause, Bram Bernhard took to the Holland House stage at Trade Fair Aalsmeer on Wednesday, 3 November 2021, to accept the Greenovation award from auction boss Stefan van Schilfgaarde. Royal FloraHolland’s annual accolade recognises horticultural companies which have demonstrated exceptional leadership and achievements in the field of sustainability.

Two months later, Bernhard still feels honoured that he received the award, seeing it as a recognition for something he calls “an extremely complex endeavour”. He references the needed permits, red tape, various strict regulations, and the debate on nitrogen oxides (Nox) emissions. “For all the bureaucracy, we managed to get the project done and this award crowns many years of hard work and perseverance.”

There is no doubt that his continued efforts not always have been easy. At times, society and government seemed reluctant to embrace geothermal energy fully. Bram notes, “In 1959, Exxon Mobil and Shell discovered Europe’s largest gas field in Groningen – the Netherlands’ northern province. However, after many decades of gas production, the ground started to sink, provoking earthquakes. Then, in 2010, the oil pipeline break in the Gulf of Mexico caused people to be even more critical of mining, which the geothermal industry is also regulated under. Personally, I think the regulations are too severe as geothermal is relatively innocent; in essence, you pump up one cubic meter of hot water and, cooled down, reinject it into the ground.”

One production well and two reinjection wells (with two reinjection wells there is less back pressure and less energy needed), drilled to a depth of 1,800 metres operate together in the set up.

A recent study by Dutch horticultural media outlet Vakblad voor de Bloemisterij found that out of the country’s 25 geothermal projects, an unknown number are experiencing problems. Either they don’t run at full capacity or have come to a complete standstill, in one case due to fears for seismic activity. However, Bram has decided to keep his feet firmly on the ground. He says, “Geothermal projects run under many different conditions and are difficult to judge individually. From what I’ve heard is about one site in the province of Limburg where there have been micro earthquakes at 4km depth. At our site, we pump up water from 2 km and reinject it, so seismic activity is unthinkable and if there is any they are too small to be felt. And fortunately instead of small portions of polluting oil, the well produces a tiny bit of natural gas as a byproduct, but that accounts only for three per cent of the heat produced.”

Being less dependent on a volatile energy market

The Bernhard brothers started to look into the potential of alternatives to gas ten years ago. “At the time gas prices had soared on the back of the oil price increase which exceeded $140 dollar a barrel in 2008. By 2013, we had emerged from the economic crisis and wanted to be less dependent on a energy market influenced by multiple external factors, that is political, social, and climate as well as supply and demand.”

It turned out geothermal energy presented good opportunities in the Flevoland area. So, the Bernhards and their neighbour, bell pepper grower Tas, worked out a plan to establish a geothermal well and started a 50/50 venture, Aardwarmte Combinatie Luttelgeest (ACL).

One production well and two reinjection wells (with two reinjection wells, there is less back pressure and less energy needed), drilled to a depth of 1,800 metres, operate together in the setup.

To further explain, groundwater at a temperature of between 78- 80°C is pumped up, passed through a heat exchanger to warm up water in a closed-loop connected to the greenhouses and then returned to the ground – a thick pocket of sand and sandstone- via the reinjection wells.

The heat of the Earth increases with depth; a phenomenon described as the geothermal gradient. This upward heat flux varies across the globe but in the Netherlands tends to be around 33°C/per kilometre. “Assuming an average outside ground temperature of 12°C, we expect the water to be 78°C,” says Bram, who is the spearhead of the project. At the same time, his brother Simon prefers to focus on the technical aspects of crop production.

The prerequisites for a solid business case

The water in the nursery loop is heated to 75°C and arrives first at Bernhard’s site growing potted phalaenopsis, a crop with the highest heat demand.

Bram Bernhard: “Without the energy crisis, I would have compensated my losses incurred during the early pandemic.”

According to Bernhard, the minimal requirement for a solid business case for wells at 2-3km depth is at least 50ha and largely depends on crop type. “We grow orchids requiring much warmth and little lighting, the neighbour’s bell peppers don’t need too much heat and use no lighting. Orchids need around 80cu m natural gas, in turn bell peppers need 30cu m natural gas but account for a signficantly vaster area of production.”

It is best for the well to produce in a continuous flow for technical and economic reasons. That’s why a critical mass of the production area is crucial. Bram explains, “We expect to pump up between 300 – 400cu m water per hour. This amount can heat up to 100ha during winter and double that area in summer. That’s why we strive to have 100ha because we want to make maximum use of the system.”

A three-tiered hydrothermal system

The hydrothermal system is three-tiered. The production well can operate at 50 or 100 per cent capacity, pumping up either 200cu m or 400cu m per hour. Bram explains, “If we need to go at full throttle, a heat pump increases the capacity by 50 per cent. So in winter, it is a three-tiered system, in spring and autumn two-tiered and in summer single-tiered. The project is of course not 100 per cent climate neutral because you always need natural gas as backup, for example if the geothermal project is shut down for maintenance. But 99 per cent is possible.”

The €30 million heat plant could warm 100 ha greenhouses with anticipated savings of 25,000,000cu m of natural gas, equivalent to the amount needed to heat around 22,000 homes.

There is interest from five more growers, and there is potential for connecting five more growers within a 10km radius in the future. However, Bernhard is quick to add, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. “We don’t want to be promising the moon. The wellheads are now ready for testing during the last week of November.”

For now, no SDE+ subsidy

The cost of geothermal energy tech has gone down in the last decade and is becoming more economically viable for individuals and companies.

The company employs 200 full-time staff, of which 70 are permanent employees from the Noordoostpolder region.

However, Berhard stresses that geothermal heat only offers growers protection from rocketing gas prices if Government support is secured.

“The Dutch government subsidy under the SDE+, or sustainable energy promotion, the scheme is to encourage further wind, solar and geothermal heat projects and to level the difference between conventional heat cost price and the cost price of geothermal heat. The heat from geothermal energy has to compete with heat produced from burning natural gas and it is cheaper to heat a greenhouse with gas.

“That is, until a worsening global energy crisis pushed prices up to catastrophic levels,” he says while keeping an eagle eye on the gas and electricity price index on his mobile.

The cost of energy was cheap when the Covid-19 pandemic nearly caused the world economy to a standstill. Almost two years on, the situation is dramatically different. Bram elaborates, “Over the past few weeks, the price of one cubic metre natural gas has been between 90 cents and one euro. I would have never foreseen that my gas bill would be at least six times higher than the five-year average. Break-even for geothermal is at a gas price of about 34 to 40 cents per cu m, so I don’t need to explain that we will be not be entitled to the SDE subsidy which is based on the gas price.”

Jumping to conclusions

As a side business, Bernhard Transport provides daily temperature-controlled flowers and plants delivery.

He finds it somewhat frustrating that people jump to conclusions assuming that geothermal will leave him exempt from cost price issues. He says, “Trust me, I have them too now that there’s no SDE+ subsidy. Overall, there is reason to be concerned about the rising gas price. In the short term, a portion of growers will work with fixed energy deals but there is no one who hedges his natural gas price for ten years. This situation will inevitably leading to rising cost pressures in the long run. The gas price’s five-year average was 15 cent and is expected to be 25 cent in the long run, putting horticultural business under enormous pressure. Differentiating yourself from the competitor is one of the solutions for the Dutch ornamentals industry and carbon neutrality is a way to achieve this.”

Vision and strategy are desperately needed

What’s missing in the debate is a long term strategy from sector bodies such as LTO NL and the Dutch government. Bram Bernhard urges, “We need vision for the ten years ahead when we will still be in need of clean natural gas whether to serve as back up, transitioning time. Truth is that all this is discouraging greenhouse growers from making their production more sustainable.”

Equally discouraging, Bram says, is ODE (Profit Renewable Energy), a Dutch energy tax in addition to the average energy tax and used for the subsidies with which renewable energy projects are paid. “If the goal is towards no more gas, than you should not increase the tax on electricity.”

Floatovoltaic

Solving the resulting electricity shortage problem is a ‘floatovoltaic’ system in the nurseries’ water retention basin.

Bernhard Nurseries aims for carbon neutrality, meaning radical changes to how the company produces its plants and flowers and consumes energy. “We are fully electrifying our greenhouses. CHP will be put on standby and replaced by geothermal energy, and solving the resulting electricity shortage problem is a ‘floatovoltaic’ system in the nurseries’ water retention basin. This floating solar system resides 50cms atop the stagnant water, incorporating 50,000 solar panels and producing 15 million kW per year. This sum compares to 3,750 households that yearly consumes around 4000kW. The plan is to sell our excess power back into the grid in summer while buying electricity in winter, simply because I have no match with my solar: when I need solar to light my crop in winter, the panels are not working.”

Never say never again or…

Bram freely admits that if you asked him to do the same thing again today, he would need to think twice. “But hey, you came to visit me on a day when the gas price is displaying 96 cents and geothermal is not yet up and running. All kidding aside, it’s just that the cost price, the labour and the energy in the Netherlands are simply too high to remain competitive. Becoming climate-neutral will allow us to gain a unique position in the marketplace. The solar panels will provide us with the necessary kilowatts for our nursery and geothermal will make gas redundant. Automation is next on our list and LED lighting.

Hopefully, we will be able to switch to LED lighting only within three years especially now that more recently researchers have finally cracked the right LED recipe in cut rose cultivation. Also on the positive side: geothermal heat is so technically advanced and so powerful to see. This project has made me realise how powerful the Earth is.”

Speaking of rose cultivation, he says that fortunately, the pricing for his ‘Avalanche+’ roses and potted phalaenopsis is good. “In phalaenopsis, lower production volumes and product innovation have created a much more balanced market, while demand for his roses is equally strong now that the wedding and event sector worldwide is picking up. Without the energy crisis, I would have compensated my losses incurred during the early pandemic.”

He ends by saying that he would welcome more realistic views, honesty and a gradual approach to exit the energy crisis. “Left wing politicians cannot stop talking about energy transition, and in certain ways the sustainability movement is elitist. My wife is Polish-born. She tells me that it’s business as usual in Ukraine, where the trucks continue to line up at the coal mines. Now that winter is around the corner, people are not willing to stay in an ice cold home. Of course we need sustainability, and yes we need to lower our carbon footprint. But this is just bad energy policy, trying to transition too fast. Mass killing our economy will not bring us any further forward.”

Bernhard Nurseries Overview

Bram and Simon Bernhard and their partners, Asia and Luzan, run four nurseries plus a transportation company. The nurseries combined span an area of 25ha. Simon’s wife Luzan is a plant hunter and IPM expert in orchids. Asia steers the organisation managing human resources. Asia is initially from Poland, which is handy as many nursery workers are Polish too.
The Bernhard family has deep horticultural roots, starting from the brothers’ granddad, who grew vegetables and flowers in Sloten, south of Amsterdam. Bram Bernhard remembers, “He began as a horse manure trader supplying vegetable growers in the Amsterdam area and Sloten, which back then was a horticultural heartland. A nice anecdote is that he used to collect the manure from farmers and Artis Zoo. In the 1950s, my grandfather expanded the business by buying my uncle’s nursery.”
The brothers’ father Bram senior joined the company in 1960 when it primarily produced cucumbers. However, when his crop started to suffer extensive damage from the dreaded root-knot nematodes, Bram senior decided to try his luck with cut roses in 1963.
In the 1970s, Amsterdam continued to expand into the surrounding environment leaving the Bernhards little space for further business development. So in 1972, Bernhard senior decided to move to Luttelgeest, where he was happy to find some nice plots of square land that was fertile and easily manageable.
In 1972, the Bernhards completed their first one-hectare glasshouse to grow roses and gerberas. It was a busy time with one part of the business still near Amsterdam and the headquarters in Luttelgeest. Ultimately, in 1986, the Bernhards sold their Amsterdam nursery to focus on and expand the nursery in Luttelgeest solely.
The company grows a wide range of three million pot phalaenopsis, five million bedding and patio plants and 25 million stems of ‘Avalanche+’ roses.
Bernhard Transport provides daily temperature-controlled flowers and plants delivery as a side business. A team of dedicated truck drivers undertake a daily trip to and from the auctions.
The company employs 200 full-time staff, of which 70 are permanent employees from the Noordoostpolder region.
Simon joined the company in 1987 at the dawn of a new era marked by automation, soilless cultivation and innovative greenhouse technology such as grading machines and a CHP plant. Bram junior joined the company in 1998. In that same year, Simon started his wholly-owned rose nursery at Lindeweg.
In 2007, the brothers started growing potted orchids together, significantly expanding the business when in 2011, they added 11ha from the sale of a neighbour’s nursery. The brothers are working hard to leave a positive footprint on their environment. After the recent Greenovation Award, their solar and geothermal energy efforts are beginning to gain notice from their peers.

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