Dutch horticultural business,
Bernhard, on sustainable flower power


Can you reflect on your relationship with Alfen? 

We have had a great relationship with Alfen for 15 years now. They know us extremely well and are a preferred supplier. The Alfen team has designed and delivered our medium voltage solution to get everything connected to our greenhouses - initially connecting one CHP connection,

then multiple CHPS, and now we work together on a broader sustainable solution. Alfen always pays care and attention to the detail and quality and this makes
a difference. We hope to continue working together positively for many more years.

Our quest for sustainability was our own initiative. The greenhouse horticulture industry is a large energy user and the sector decided that we wanted to be 50% energy neutral by 2030 and 100% by 2040. So our work so far seems like a step in the right direction. It also supports our brand image and therefore sales because sustainability is increasingly important to consumers. 

We expect the rest of the sector to follow suit in the coming years. Use of geothermal energy is already quite common. Use of solar PV on water basins is also on the increase and has the advantage of reducing the amount of radiation on the water, so it’s cleaner and less warm, preventing algae in the summer months which is also good for the water pipes and the irrigation system.

Can you explain what value all of this offers to your business and the industry in general?

Yes. We want to further extend the solar PV panels on the rooftops of the processing halls, and we are looking for alternatives to CO2 fertilisation so that CHP becomes completely unnecessary. We also want to better balance our generation with our demand to avoid situations where we over-produce CHP and solar in the summer and have a shortfall in the winter – both of which we are charged for. Small users in the Netherlands can deduct the energy they deliver back to the grid from the amount 

pulled from the grid. In this way, they only pay tax for their net consumed electricity. As we are a large energy user, we cannot do that, and I am not convinced that being penalised that way is the best way to further stimulate the switch to green electrification from fossil fuels. However, in the meantime, we must manage it better by; for example, finding ways to use or store more power or switch off the solar in an overload situation. 

Do you have future sustainability plans and does smart energy play a role?   

Delivering the tropical conditions to grow orchids requires heat and this is generically provided by combined heat and power (CHP) installations. These CHPs run on gas. Part of our sustainability journey has been to switch to geothermal heat as this system can be driven by electrical pumps. In order to generate the electricity sustainably, we have also installed partly floating, partly standing solar PV on a rain collection basin which collects 80,000 m3 of rainwater per year and is used to irrigate the plants. The solar generates 14.5MWp which is also partly used for the greenhouses. This reduces our CHP use by 50%. Importantly, we also use it for CO2 fertilisation.

The use of rainwater is important because it doesn’t contain any traces of the waste and by-products which are present, for example, in drinking water. In other words, it is clean from disease and ballast substances - salts - that cannot be absorbed by the plants.

Of the nutrient water provided for plants, 50% is absorbed or evaporates and 50% soaks out. We collect that run off and give it back to plants so it is, in effect, a completely closed circular system.

Can you tell us about your sustainability journey so far?

" The greenhouse horticulture industry is a large energy user and the sector decided that we wanted to be 50% energy neutral by 2030 and 100% by 2040 "

I own and run several flower farms with my brother, Simon. We have always been in the business – in fact you could say we were born to it. Our grandpa started growing vegetables in Amsterdam in 1950 and now, here we are, three generations later, with 200 employees, supplying flowers all over Europe, from Moscow to Turkey, to Spain and England – anywhere we can reasonably get a truck from Noordoostpolder, where
we are now based in the Netherlands.

We grow mainly orchids and roses and our facilities are located quite close together along one road to make use of shared infrastructure. As orchids are a tropical plant, we must imitate a tropical climate. For the first six months, we grow them at 28 degree (tropical) temperatures and then at 18 degrees for the following
six months to force the plants into bloom. Roses are grown at 20 degrees and need a lot of water.

Can you introduce yourself and the company?

The Bernhard Group has a fabulous horticultural history. Three generations of the same family have grown the business from a humble vegetable and flower growing business in Amsterdam, to a highly successful European-wide flower farming and transportation business. They are acknowledged for growing and delivering some of the most exquisite and exotic flowers available - and doing it with a very evident passion for the environment and renewables. 

We spoke to one of the two brothers currently at the helm of the business, Bram Bernhard, to understand more about the energy requirements for growing both native and tropical plants and the company’s journey to do this as sustainably as possible.

An interview with Bram Bernhard,
CEO at The Bernhard Group