I wrote this article in 2005, a humorous look at Dutch energy billing
My brother Frits, whom I may have mentioned before, is a thrifty Dutchman (this is kind of a national characteristic but he’s closer to real pennypincher than most), and before I ever moved here, he warned me that energy is hellaciously expensive in The Netherlands. Back when I used to live in Spokane and I would visit The Netherlands, invariably his questions would be about how much we paid for home heating and gas and car insurance, and he’d always have a cow when I told him because he’d be paying up to four times as much. However, the year before we moved here, that had changed significantly, and not just because we were living in a much bigger house by that time. My energy bills were outrageous for American standards, though still low compared to what I would pay to heat the same house and keep two cars on the road anywhere in Europe, thanks to Enron. But let’s not talk about that.
Already, because I have the “cheap Dutch” gene also and we ever lived in Belgium, we had good energy habits. We did not leave the water running unnecessarily, I was forever turning the heat down, and I would use a clothesline rather than the dryer sometimes, for example. But these are nothing like the habits you need to acquire to be properly Dutch about your energy bills, or in other words, survive the assault on your pocketbook in countries that don’t have their own oil. Well we have Shell. But let’s not talk about that.
And so we got here, and all of a sudden we have a house with rooms with doors, which people (the kids, that is) aren’t used to and leave open. Then again everybody assures me their Dutch kids don’t know how to close a door behind them either, and I must admit my dad comes out when I yell at my kids for leaving their lights on and the doors open, since I live here in his exact same words, too, when he said them to us. My dad was worse about it though, he once followed my two brothers who had left for school and kicked them all the way back to close the front door they had left open. Too bad he’s no longer around to inquire whether that worked.
We also have not one, but two waterbeds. We had one for a long time, it was the thing to have in the NorthWest, and we liked it so much we once cut short a vacation because we could no longer stand hotel beds. Then my son, when he was little, started going into our bedroom to sleep in the warm comfy waterbed because he had a hard time falling asleep in his own, and this was okay when my husband could just carry him over to his own bed on the occasions when it happened, but it got to be a problem when he got bigger and made it a regular habit.
So, just like it was necessary to get my little girl her own VCR/TV combination for her own room after watching The Little Mermaid for the hundreth time (which was after the Cinderella months), it was necessary to get him his own waterbed, and we did not expect him to give it up when we moved here, for the same reasons we weren’t giving ours up, either. You spend a third of your life in bed, and it’s essential that it’s a good place to sleep. As well as to make love, but let’s not talk about that!
Waterbeds require electric heaters, and that by itself is enough of an energy slurper that we knew better than to operate transformers as well to convert 220v. into 110, let alone for two waterbeds. Frits (yes, thrifty Frits) has a waterbed (he and his wife took a vacation in America and slept on a waterbed and that was that) and he said to get new heaters up to the highest efficiency standards or else it would cost just way too much. Frits didn’t tell us that unlike lousy inefficient American heaters which are available through mailorder for fifty bucks, highly efficient European heaters only available at specialized waterbed stores that comply with all the standards, start at 380 Euros.
Good thing one heater will do for a double bed. And since our son had to have a transformer in his bedroom (in order to operate the American VCR/TV we brought to be able to watch our American tapes) anyway, my husband decided to defy European safety standards (requiring materials only made in outer space) and plug in the one American waterbed heater we did bring with us.
I did actually sit down and figure an estimate of my energy bill here (which is really hard to do because you have to convert from duodecimal to metric and then currency) based on Frits’ household use, and if you would simply go by the size of the house my bills should be one tenth of what I paid in America. But it’s only a little lower than that, and given the much reduced income we had and the size of other bills on average, it’s the biggest bill we pay after rent — which is subsidized when you are low-income, but your energy bills are not.
I am billed every two months by Nuon, my energy company (recently privatized, grr. But let’s not..). They base the amount due on estimated yearly usage based on previous year’s usage, divided by six. So we moved here with two waterbeds, kids used to American ways of life (if you’re cold, turn up the heat), in March of a year estimated by Nuon based on the usage of the previous occupant, a single lady with a cat. So when I first started receiving the bills, they were actually quite low, especially since they didn’t come every month, and I thought, because I did not know they weren’t measuring actual rates like Washington Utilities used to, well now that’s not too bad.
But then December came, and it’s one of the billing months, so first you pay the bill and then about that same day you get another bill, the “end of year adjustment.” Which is the difference between actual measured use for the year and the total of the bills you paid. That was some 800 euros went to Nuon that first December, I nearly had a heart attack. Then, they adjusted the bimonthly payment upwards — but our serious energy usage of the previous year didn’t start in March, it started in the Fall, so I had a feeling that the next December would also bring an unpleasant surprise.
Which it did. This time our “accounting” was again as much as our regular bill, and since I was on unemployment back then headed for Welfare, it took me so long to scrape the money together to pay it that the next energy bill was in the mail already, with a threat to shut off if I didn’t pay within ten days, and upwardly adjusted by another 40 Euros for late fees. And I did more yelling at the kids for leaving doors open and lights on and grounded and revoked privileges and seriously considered not having a waterbed.
Just recently it’s been December again, and I had to read my meters and call in the numbers. Something must have gone wrong with my relaying this information to the Bill Generating Computer at Nuon by way of pushing numbers on my telephone, because two weeks ago a Nuon person showed up to read them again, and he also happened to have the readings of the year before, which did not encourage me at all because they were up quite a bit. Then there is this “fear of bills” I have that I may have mentioned before, so I have not been having a good time waiting for Nuon to tell me the bad news, even though my husband does have a job now and I could deal with it much better than last year. Nuon already got their chunk out of his first paycheck, you know.
When the bill dropped on the mat today, I did not open it. I wouldn’t even have picked it up except my son had to be all curious about what the mail brought and then so diligent about telling me, Hey mom you have a BILL from NUON! Cringe. Okay, we’ll give it to the man when he comes home tonight, sorry dude, it comes out of your paycheck anyway, just grin and bear it, I can’t. Tonight the big moment was there. And of course it’s one of those complicated Dutch ways of figuring a bill so he has to show it to me anyway just so he can interpret it — and we are getting well over 300 Euros back. Also next year’s bills are adjusted back down by 40 Euros. And this while energy prices increased. So I’m happy!
Frits’ energy bill was estimated on the past year’s usage just like mine, and in 2003 he was a stay-at-home dad with a working wife who had appliances for everything and a freezer and two refrigerators and three kids with computers running all day (well make that night) long, two of them twin daughters who liked lots of hot showers and lots of pretty clothes clean, and so on and so forth. But in 2004 that completely changed, in that all his kids moved out on their own and he and his wife divorced (not necessarily in that order) and his new wife is a lot more of a do-it-yourself homemaker and considers his pennypinching ways one of his best sides and heartily participates. Being Frits, he also called in his meter readings early, and so received a Nuon Christmas present of more than 1000 Euros refund.
Since Nuon privatized, they also have competition. I get regular calls or people at my door trying to get me to switch to companies that are more “green” or supposedly offer cheaper rates. Before I ever lived in America I’d fall for that pitch like a stone. Now I have been cured from any idea that affordable energy is compatible with good environmental policy so I know that “green” energy is just so much hogwash, and I also know that other companies bill for usage not connection rates, which I still have to pay separately. To Nuon. And furthermore I know that those cheap initial rates are bait. And then of course I have to pay to switch back. Grrr, privatization. But I promised I wouldn’t talk about that.
Soon after we moved here, we bought a new refrigerator. This was expensive, but two weeks after Rich arrived, we celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary, and we told everyone we needed a new fridge and so everyone gave us money for one. What we received was enough for a fridge, but not enough for the one we wanted, to wit, a Miele.
I mentioned that we lived in Belgium before; we had a Miele refrigerator and a Miele washing machine then. There’s just nothing like German engineering; in America I had a Whirlpool and then Sears’ top brand washer, and they were oversized clunky junk. The best comparison I have is cars, having a Miele is like having a BMW, and American appliances are more like Fords.
To be fair to us, since we were still relatively poor and had received enough money for “a fridge”, we did do comparison shopping. But what did we find with other brands — poor door insulation, poorly fit freezer drawers, cheap outfitting, handles we knew were due to break. We open the next Miele and voilà, the shelves are fully interchangeable and made of glass not plastic; the drawers are sturdy plastic and fit almost airtight in their freezer spaces, and so on. The Goldilocks thing, everything is *just right*. We looked at other stores and other brands and we came back and put our money down. And when I pulled a face (because all my Dutch genes were berating me for not getting the cheapest one within 20 kilometers), my husband made the nicest comment: “Think of it as an investment in our future, the next 25 years.”
Back in Spokane we used to have a closet-sized fridge with an icemaker and a fountain in the door. I loved it; I really did want one with a fountain here too, but in energy-conscious Europe (where icecubes have gained inroads but still aren’t as popular as they are in America) those are not marketed much and are expensive, to boot (not that our fridge in Spokane came cheap).
And on the door of every refrigerator for sale is a sticker for comparison shopping, and its main feature is its energy rating, which runs from AAA to F, with a colorline by it from green via yellow to red. If you buy an AAA appliance, then you get 50 Euros back from your energy company. Our Miele is an AAA, and none we saw for sale were below A.
Some months later, we are walking through the shopping district and we notice a window full of metallic kitchen appliances, looking all sleek and tempting. Among them is a huge fridge, just like the one we used to have, including ice cube dispenser and water fountain in the door. It’s 1200 some Euros, and the sticker on it proclaims an energy rating of F. One of those bittersweet moments, where we get to both laugh and cry at what used to be, and how things changed, and walk on, shaking our heads.
One last note about Nuon. They too get some of their energy from green resources, to wit, something very Dutch, windmill parks. There is one on the way to Almere/Randstad through the polder, where tall white mills are lined up on top of the sea dike and then on the other side of the highway is a field with rows and rows of them. As we were driving by all these windmills last Summer on our way to taking the kids to Schiphol for a visit to grandma and grandpa, we took note of them and discussed windmill energy, with me commenting that I thought there should be more windmill parks since they’re pretty, and then we considered their efficiency versus other methods, at which point I wondered out loud how many homes this park was heating. Upon which my husband immediately answers, in a Mr. Spock-like manner, That would be 4,628 homes. Our jaws just dropped, Wow dad, how did you know that? Did you read ALL the literature that came with the last bill or something? Then he burst out laughing, “We just drove by the sign from Nuon that said so.”