Wednesday

1st Feb 2023

Belgium asks for solidarity to prevent electricity blackouts

  • The centre of Antwerp is excluded from the precautionary disconnects, but is asked to show solidarity. (Photo: Peter Teffer)

As Belgium struggles to keep the lights on this winter, even the penguins and sea-lions will be doing their bit to help.

After several of its nuclear reactors had to be taken offline, the country is facing the possibility of electricity shortages, particularly on cold days.

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  • Will Antwerp and the rest of Belgium have an offline Christmas? (Photo: Peter Teffer)

The looming outages are a dilemma for Antwerp's zoological garden.

During the Christmas holiday, the zoo holds a Chinese light show. The show starts at 6pm, a peak demand period.

“We don't want to put an extra burden on the electricity grid”, says Ilse Segers, a spokesperson at Antwerp Zoo.

The show was already booked in the spring. But it was only a few months ago that it became apparent how serious Belgium's electricity problem was.

The federal government has set up a plan to preventively disconnect some areas to avert a country-wide blackout.

While the centre of Belgium's second largest city, Antwerp, is excluded from the precautionary area, the zoo “wants to show solidarity”.

So the day the government executes its prevention plan, the Antwerp Zoo will “pause” several systems, like air and water circulation.

“We can't do that for a long time because that would harm the animals. But a few hours is possible”, says Segers.

The move by the zoo’s authorities comes after the Belgian government asked for solidarity to help prevent any blackouts.

Across the country, posters ask people to try and reduce energy demand, by switching off lights when they are not needed, washing clothes at lower temperature and cooking using fewer pans.

The campaign has a friendly nature and there was no sense of panic in Antwerp on a recent Friday (5 December).

Tourists and locals alike wander the city wearing hats and gloves, but the temperature is moderate: about five degrees Celsius.

If temperatures go too low, however, then a combination of events could spell trouble for Belgium, the European Network of Transmission System Operators for Electricity concluded in its annual Winter Outlook analysis.

“Apart from the holiday period, all weeks can potentially be critical depending mainly on the meteorological conditions in Belgium and neighbouring countries,” the report says.

Lower temperatures means more people spend their time inside, using electricity. Not only for electrical heaters, but also devices like televisions and computers.

The big problem is the period of peak demand, between 5pm and 8pm. Electricity supply and demand have to remain in balance, otherwise a blackout can occur.

Nuclear power problems

But nuclear power plants - responsible for around half of the supply-side in Belgium - have had problem upon problem.

In March, two reactors were taken offline after operator Electrabel concluded that “microcracks” that had been discovered earlier in pressure vessels, were riskier than previously thought. These two reactors generate around 2,000 megawatts, or around 13 percent of Belgium's electricity.

Initially GDF Suez – Electrabel's parent company – said the reactors could reopen this winter, but in November delayed the reopening until 1 April 2015.

Another nuclear reactor, Doel 4, was closed after its turbine was damaged in August, most likely due to sabotage. The investigators have not excluded terrorism as a motive.

More recently, a reactor which was shut down for several days after electrical cables caught fire.

So is this all down to bad luck?

Belgian politics

No, it is also bad policy, says Fabio Genoese, research fellow at the Centre for European Policy Studies in Brussels.

“First and foremost the situation in Belgium is a problem of Belgian politics”, Genoese says, referring to record-setting post-election government formation periods and an instability in coalitions that produced seven cabinets in the past ten years.

“You had so many energy ministers, from different political parties, [each] putting their political view in energy policy. This makes the energy policy framework unstable.”

In addition to that, Belgium's federal government shares powers with strong regional governments. While energy policy is in the hands of the federal government, so-called “green subsidies” for renewable energy schemes are regional.

“People do not trust the framework enough to do investments”, Genoese says.

Kathleen Van Brempt is a Belgian member of the European Parliament for the social democrat party Sp.a, which has been part of the government coalition in two of the six most recent cabinets. Her party is currently part of the opposition.

“It is not just the current government that is responsible for the impending power shortages”, says Van Brempt. “My party is also responsible.”

“We invested in renewable energy, but it could have been more.”

She also takes aim at the fickle decision-making on energy policy.

“Energy is pre-eminently a policy area where you need to develop a long-term vision, like we are doing in the EU”, the Belgian politician says. In October, EU leaders decided on an energy and climate "policy framework" until 2030.

“In a country like Belgium that [long-term vision] is extremely difficult. The antics around nuclear energy is the best example of that.”

Although the Belgian government had decided to phase-out the country’s nuclear power plants in 2003, subsequent cabinets reviewed that decision.

Even now, prime minister Charles Michel's government may yet decide to keep reactors Doel 1 and 2 open until 2025 – they had been scheduled to close in 2015. A memorandum on the matter will be published “in the short-term”, a spokesperson says.

“Imagine if you were an investor”, Van Brempt says rhetorically. “Investments only come if you create a stable investment climate. That is problematic in Belgium.”

Cross-border connections

Another issue is that Belgium's electricity grid is only connected to France and the Netherlands, but not to Germany.

A connection between Aachen (Germany) and Liege (Belgium) is scheduled to be finished by 2019.

Part of the reason why it has taken so long for the power line to be installed is because it will increase competition, says energy expert Genoese.

“In many EU member states there is a national incumbent, one big electricity company which has a huge market share.” This company is reluctant to open up to competitors.

Cross-border power lines also require coordination, because “if you build a new power line, you basically give your neighbouring state the possibility to influence your electricity system”, says Genoese.

Energy policy is still a very national competence in the EU. Or, in Genoese's words: “Everyone is doing whatever they want and ignoring that their policies have cross-border effects.”

He sees a role here for the Energy Union, which the European Commission hopes to create. “Energy Union should not just be about commonly purchasing gas, but it's also important to merge or connect national policies.”

Pre-emptively disconnected

However, Belgium now needs short-term solutions.

That's why the federal government has selected areas in the country which will be pre-emptively disconnected from the power grid when a shortage is expected to endanger the entire grid. Citizens can check online if their street is part of the disconnection plan.

The Bisschoppenhoflaan in the Antwerp district Deurne is one of those streets. But not everyone working there is aware of it.

“I'm just hearing this now”, says Austin Lyere, who runs a butchery there. A disconnection, which could last several hours, could be an economic catastrophe for his business.

“The fridge is on 365 days a year. Even thirty minutes without electricity could be fatal. The temperature could go up to between 8 and 10 degrees. I could have to throw away all the meat.”

A bit further up the road, Dirk Dekkers has a similar problem. He runs a car tire repair shop. “Everything here is electrical, even the air pump. I can't work with candle light.”

Back in the centre of Antwerp, the operator of a carousel at the Grote Markt square says he is ready to his part for electricity solidarity.

“But I'm not going to sit here in the dark by myself", he says. "They also needs to turn off the lights", he adds, pointing to the city's grand 16th century city hall.

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