in conversation with ...

Ranja Van Asbroeck

The city of Mechelen is not sitting still when it comes to climate. They brought all climate-related topics together years ago under one denominator: Mechelen Klimaatneutraal, which received a substantial financial boost thanks to BE REEL! From collective renovations to installing solar panels. They do it all. BE REEL spoke to their project coordinator, Ranja Van Asbroeck.

Ranja Van Asbroeck has worked for the city of Mechelen for 23 years. She started as head of the district and village affairs department. Afterwards, she worked around administrative simplification and digitalisation. She then switched to the climate team. Her current position is project coordinator at BE REEL! Project for the city of Mechelen. She is also already involved in a new project called Masterplan Binnendijle. That is an urban development project (European Urban Initiative) under the theme of New Bauhaus, which focuses on strengthening the river for people, nature and a lively city.


What is Mechelen Klimaatneutraal?

Ranja: "Mechelen Klimaatneutraal is the part of the city of Mechelen that focuses on climate policy. This includes some significant pillars, such as renovation and insulation of the housing patrimony, the transition to fossil-free heating and sustainable technologies and climate adaptation, such as softening and greening streets and combating future heat hazards. This also includes creating wetlands around the city to prevent flooding. Some team members are also working around circularity to reduce CO2 emissions thus and use resources sparingly. Another team works around agriculture, focusing on organic and nature-friendly methods.

As part of BE REEL!, housing renovation has gained real momentum. A full-fledged service has been set up as a one-stop shop/energy counter, with a comprehensive operation built according to the customer journey: support for the renovation of houses and flats linked to premiums and loans, sustainable plan advice for architects, as well as decongestion through group purchases, intensive guidance for those who need it, and so on.

By pillars, I do not mean that our service is strictly hierarchical. New energy sources go very much together with renovation and reuse after demolition is also very much interwoven in renovation projects and sustainable planning advice. Everything does flow together somewhat in islands working together. For example, we have a monthly meeting each time a project is explained so that we know from each other what we are doing and can more easily interact. There is also a weekly meeting where everyone gets one minute to mention his three topics of the week."

Thanks to the BE REEL! project, we were able to address the services around it and build out the whole customer journey.

So, has Mechelen Climate Neutral become viable thanks to BE REEL?

Ranja: "The energy counter with the loans and premiums already existed. Thanks to the BE REEL! We could also tackle the services around it and expand the entire customer journey. This has generated many new initiatives: information material, new tools to engage with actively, renovation guidance, sustainable plan advice, group purchases, alternative financing models and working around different target groups: more vulnerable target groups, landlords and flat owners, for example."

The city of Mechelen is also a partner of the BE-REEL! Project. Can you explain a bit about the projects you are involved in?

Ranja: "We do indeed do some things. You can distinguish five major objectives. The first is making homes nearly energy-neutral and developing methodologies around that. The city started providing sustainable plan advice because it was noticed that more than a single measure is needed to renovate existing houses. A thorough renovation is needed. To achieve this, we have hired a sustainable plan advisor who advises architects and owner-builders together, based on concrete plans, on how to make them more sustainable. This includes insulation of the exterior of homes, measures to combat heat and maintain coolness in homes, energy and water conservation techniques, the use of solar energy, ventilation and reuse of materials or info on sustainable alternatives on the market. Thanks to smart design and facilities, interventions that are currently outside budget can be carried out at a later stage. This not only prevents 'building knots' but also a lot of costs."

"The second objective is individual renovation advice and collective renovations. Since the launch of BE REEL! We have been providing renovation advice at home on demand to discuss with citizens who want to renovate what their priorities are. We make an energy scan and then draw up an advisory report with a phased plan. We also always look at what loans and grants the citizens can get to minimise costs. Besides insulation, heat prevention and cooling are also covered. Afterwards, we extended this offer to collective renovations. In addition, we have implemented several innovative methodologies for this purpose. We started by drawing up a vision for the neighbourhood and quality requirements in advance with the building service so that we could also submit a collective building permit for an entire neighbourhood together. By coordinating this in advance, we can find a contractor willing to make a group offer, resulting in good value for money and less worry for citizens. That approach requires increased staff commitment to presence in a neighbourhood, communication, and timing and scheduling must also be strictly monitored."

"A third objective is the solar panels we install on social housing and the Klimaan cooperative. For instance, in the social housing estate Otterbeek, we have provided an entire neighbourhood with green energy. Klimaan also provides advice at home, and every inhabitant of Mechelen can sign up to buy them. Our original goal was to create 450 installations cooperating with the social housing company. The current position is 2162 solar panels, 730 of which are on social housing. Although we have reached fewer houses, the installed power is much higher than expected. We have committed to energy sharing, allowing more houses to benefit from the same solar panels. We have also worked out an addendum contract for rental properties when solar panels are installed. Through this contract, the tenant and landlord can agree on a fee for solar energy that is lower than the regular price, a win-win for everyone. "

Although we have reached fewer homes than planned, the installed capacity is much higher than expected.

"A fourth objective is to provide financially budget-neutral loans to vulnerable target groups. In Mechelen, a 0% loan has been introduced, allowing vulnerable groups to borrow at zero per cent interest. In addition, loans have been made available for heating installations and solar panels, with the loan being repaid based on the subsidy obtained and the savings on the energy bill. These loans were always accompanied by the obligation to insulate the roof to ensure that there would be no heat loss or construction problems. These loans were discontinued with the advent of mining loans and premiums. From this, we learned that such financial systems work best at the Flemish level.

"Finally, we looked at how to use insights from behavioural sciences to motivate people to save energy. With Fluvius and the KUL, under the title 'get energy from your bill', we set up a large scientific study on motivation techniques. For three years, Fluvius collected all data from houses. They clustered them at sector and street level into six different condition groups to apply different nudging techniques and compare them with each other. The war somewhat overruled us, the energy crisis, and the subsequent information campaigns by energy suppliers and Flanders around energy saving. This cannot answer all the research questions. However, the study showed that Mechelen residents saved as much electricity and 2% more gas as central cities Kortrijk, Sint-Niklaas, Leuven and Aalst. A result we are proud of."

What did you learn from this?

Ranja:" That the incentive leads to action in the short term but has little effect in the long term. We could somewhat expect that since long-term reduction requires a lot of effort. A second question was: Are people more motivated if the reduction is expressed in CO2 or financially or if it combines both? Here, we saw no effect, but that is presumably because everyone received info on tips with cost savings during the crisis. We found no difference in savings among vulnerable groups and other residents, but we did find that mainly the biggest consumers saved the most energy. A unique feature of our study was that residents of Mechelen could compare their consumption with the 20% most frugal neighbours and similar family sizes, gain insight into their consumption and immediately receive tips on how to get started. This made a difference."

Opinion questions

Suppose: as a policymaker, you may change/create one policy measure to help achieve your objectives. Which one did you choose, and why did you choose it? (You may select the policy level yourself)

Ranja: "I think of the shift from gas to electricity pricing. Currently, electricity is still more expensive than gas. So, it is necessary to put that shift in perspective. I am also thinking of additional measures to support vulnerable groups. The focus should be more on those groups because others can make the shift and are likely to do so if it becomes financially interesting.  Then, I will discuss measures like phasing out the most energy-hungry rental properties. There should be more energetic social housing and measures like an emergency purchase fund or pledge to support landlords."

Which hypothesis/ theme around energy renovation would you like to see a study or concrete action published on, and why?

Ranja: "Something around the sustainability of materials. We are fully committed to insulating homes and shifting to heat pumps and solar panels. The CO2 emissions from the production processes and global transport are huge. We have to ensure that the entire cycle is kept in mind, not just the goal of consuming less gas and electricity. Also, implementing new technologies may not be done in the most efficient way. Perhaps solar panels that you install in large numbers along highways, for example, are more efficient than putting panels on individual roofs? The CO2 impact of the renovation wave may well be investigated on a higher scale. In addition, I hope that heat risk and water consumption reduction are included in the renovation wave. So that we do not run the risk that soon all homes will be insulated but consume more in air conditioning or our water consumption will become unaffordable."

Finally, a question about the future: what do you think it looks like?

Ranja: "There is a big contradiction between the problems already in day-to-day life due to climate change: the heat days, flooding, failed food harvests, the energy crisis... That makes people need short-term solutions. I hope short-term solutions will not snow under the long-term vision."

Thank you for this interview!

More information about Mechelen Klimaatneutraal (in Dutch)

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