‘We had to invest heavily first’

Sustainable living, long a goal of those concerned about the environment and climate change, is now also great for your wallet. The raging inflation and sky-high bills are therefore making more and more Belgians dream of a self-sufficient life. But how realistic is life without a water or electricity grid? Can you manage with vegetables from the garden and trade with the neighbors? Is rainwater healthy? And won’t you stink if you never use soap? Six experts by experience have each perfected their own variant of an environmentally friendly life. Today: Tom Nijsen.

Louis Geuens in Katia Vlerick

At industrial engineer Tom Nijsen in Kermt, a pond with lava stones collects rainwater, which is filtered into drinking water, and the wastewater flows into a basin with purifying reeds at the back. There is a vegetable garden and sheep grazing, but there is also a Tesla under the carport, which charges electricity from the solar panels on the roofs of the house and the carport. Of KermtStroomt Nijsen wants to turn the entire street into one self-sufficient energy community.

You are not off-grid and you are also connected to the water network, but you are quite self-sufficient, even completely for the electricity. How did you get started?

Tom Nijsen: “At a certain point, my wife and I decided that we wanted to have a sustainable impact, and at the same time have more free time. My wife works part-time in the social sector, where she helps people in a more difficult situation. My salary as an engineer only allows me to work three days. When I’m home, I take care of the kids. This is possible because we hardly have any costs: I pay 100 euros annually for electricity. We had to invest heavily at first, but that was possible because we worked full-time for years.”

How much did the installation cost?

Nijsen: “In 2007 I had solar panels installed on our roof for 21,000 euros, and recently for 5,000 euros on the carport. A battery with an inverter cost another 5,000 euros. So all together I have invested 30,000 euros in an installation that will last at least thirty years. Now I am completely independent of market fluctuations.

“In the summer months we produce 50 kWh daily, but we only consume 7 kWh. In winter that is 10 kWh and we therefore consume 10 kWh. So we live in comfort. The surpluses go into the car or home battery, or into the grid.”

The Tesla under the carport is an expensive car.

Nijsen: “I bought it myself. I paid 30,000 euros in cash and I borrowed the other half from the bank. It’s a share car and the car sharers actually pay back the loan. From March to the end of October, the car runs on our surplus solar power. Our own input is an investment for the near future: the Tesla has ten times more battery capacity than my home battery. It is only a matter of time before we are legally allowed to use the car as a home battery.”

You are also the initiator of KermtStroomt: what exactly is that?

Nijsen: “I want to create a smart energy community in our street. There are 44 houses and one Fluvius cabin here. If all families work together and let their surplus electricity go to the neighbors when they need it, we can do without the Fluvius cabin. Technically, my surplus already goes to my neighbor, but through that cabin, and he pays the full pot. The more we produce electricity locally with solar panels, the closer we get to the moment when we can connect houses to each other with smart meters and electricity is free.”

What if your neighbors don’t have money for solar panels on their roof?

Nijsen: “Then the 44 families could put together 5,000 euros for a set of solar panels, which is only 100 euros for each family.”

The Fluvius website states that from 2023 you can unite in an energy community. Legally nothing stands in your way?

Nijsen: “More is being allowed, but what I actually want will be impossible for a long time to come. After all, a home battery is not useful in my scenario. Instead of 10,000 euros each for our own battery, we would rather invest 5,000 euros each in one neighborhood battery. Only that is not allowed.

“Europe has also decided that the consumer must be at the center of the energy system. The customer could now earn good money with the surplus of solar energy that he puts on the grid. But in Belgium you get almost nothing for it.

(Breed) The system is full of holes. There are subsidies for batteries because they alleviate the peaks at noon and prevent the grid from becoming overloaded. But if you bake fries or do the laundry in the afternoon, you also help it. The investor is rewarded, the consumer is not. It would be better to replace those battery subsidies with cheap afternoon rates. The night rate was introduced at the time because the nuclear power plants were not allowed to be switched off at night, in the age of solar energy we have to move to an afternoon rate.”

In the past, everyone ate a hot meal in the afternoon and sandwiches in the evening.

Nijsen: “Because both partners go to work, many people have a hot meal in the evening. We have also adapted that through our smart energy management: we work half-time and do have time to cook in the afternoon. It all hangs together.”

How many neighbors have you been able to convince?

Nijsen: “Seventeen families now have solar panels. It is not easy to make everyone see that it will pay off if we all become self-reliant. And that the investment is also more bearable if we do it together.”

How do you heat your home?

Nijsen: “With a high-efficiency heating oil boiler. We also have a soapstone stove in the living room, which provides a constant heat of 19 to 21 degrees. Such a stove burns cleanly and economically.

“A heat pump on electricity is the only sustainable heating system, but it requires 25 kWh of energy per day. On a winter day we already need 10 kWh for washing and peeing. But soon there will be wind turbines at sea in which we have shares with our cooperative (Ecopower wants to participate in SeaCoop together with all other energy cooperatives, ed.)then a heat pump will be possible.”

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