EXPRESS #1 - October 2, 2018
Quite amazing, but not quite unexpected: Belgium, the country hosting the EU Capital, in the very centre of Western Europe, is bracing itself for blackouts in the coming winter.
“With just a few weeks to go before winter starts, Belgium is facing the unexpected unavailability of multiple nuclear power stations, a situation that is severely testing the balance between generation and consumption”, Belgian TSO Elia announced on 27 September in a candid press release.
“The unexpected, long-term unavailability of Doel 1, Doel 2, Tihange 2 and Tihange 3 means a 3,000 MW capacity shortfall until mid-December, i.e. 25% of total installed manageable generation capacity in Belgium”, said Elia. “Without an additional 1,600 to 1,700 MW of capacity, system operator Elia cannot always guarantee security of supply without a load-shedding plan. November is the most critical month.”
“Elia does not see enough solutions that could fully resolve the adequacy issue, which is why, even if the Belgian and international markets provide us with all available capacity (generation, demand and import), we cannot yet rule out the need to activate the load-shedding plan”, the TSO said. “Elia is working actively with the relevant parties to examine and develop appropriate solutions. We are also calling on all market operators and suppliers to fulfil their legal responsibility and guarantee that their portfolio is balanced at all times. Elia remains at the disposal of the Belgian authorities for further assessment of security of supply this winter.”
The question is, though, how “unexpected” is the embarrassing situation Belgium finds itself in? Of course the outages at the nuclear reactors may be “unexpected”, but Belgium’s over-dependence on its ageing nuclear reactors is not “unexpected” at all.
In 2014, Belgian consultant Benedict de Meulemeester already raised the alarm in an article on Energy Post.
“Wholesale power prices in Belgium are now considerably higher than in its big neighbour Germany”, De Meulemeester pointed out. “In addition, Belgium is the only country in North West Europe to be faced with an electricity supply shortage. This situation is caused by a long series of policy failures on the part of the Belgian government, which has failed to create stable investment conditions, a competitive market and adequate interconnections.”
The main reason for this failure of Belgian energy policymaking has an institutional character, De Meulemeester wrote. “I don’t want to tire foreign readers of this article with the quagmires of Belgian politics, but still, the complexity of its institutions has contributed a lot to this policy failure. In the last decade, Belgium has had many different energy ministers from many different parties. Energy policy tends to be heavily coloured by ideology, so all these changes in ministers have caused multiple turnarounds and flip-flops.”
De Meulemeester mentioned four concrete examples of policy failures:
- Belgian energy policymakers have often focused on fighting highly symbolic battles with incumbent supplier and producer Electrabel (now part of the GdF-Suez group). Despite the rhetoric, it took them a very long time to really do something about Electrabel’s dominant position, discouraging alternative suppliers to invest in Belgium.
- Belgium launched a nuclear phase-out policy and then renegotiated it, and renegotiated it and renegotiated it. This obviously created a lot of uncertainty and prevented energy companies from investing in large-scale fossil fuel-fired power production in Belgium.
- Belgium (i.e. the Flemish, Walloon and Brussels’regions) launched ambitious, generous support schemes for renewables but then rapidly withdrew them as the cost became clear.
- Politicians kept dreaming about energy independence and only realized the importance of increasing cross-border capacity when the security problems with the two plants surfaced. For example, there still is no cross-border capacity with Germany, it is only planned to be operational in 2019. This is obviously especially painful at this moment when German wholesale power is so much cheaper.
Incidentally, Belgium is not the only EU country fearing power shortages. The Guardian reports that Northern Ireland too “faces blackouts and drastic electricity price rises in the event of a no-deal Brexit”, according to “leaked government documents”.
“The country would likely be cut off from electricity supplies from the Republic of Ireland and unable to use its sole electricity link to the UK mainland, according to an internal briefing”, notes the Guardian.
“Officials have been warning for months that Northern Ireland’s electricity market could collapse, triggering ‘unprecedented consequences’ and forcing authorities to prepare to take energy infrastructure into public ownership to keep the lights on.”
The government documents, shared widely across Whitehall and seen by the Guardian, show that in the event of a no-deal Brexit:
- Householders in Northern Ireland could see electricity bills rise by up to £200.
- Energycompanies could collapse.
- Diesel generators would be needed to keep power supplies running.
- The UK government has not yet talked to power station operators in Northern Ireland.
“For more than a decade, Ireland and Northern Ireland have had a joint electricity market, known as the Single Electricity Market (SEM), allowing power to be traded across the border. But that market would probably collapse if the UK leaves the EU without a deal, because there would no longer be a basis for staying in the SEM. A deal with the EU is described as essential to the market’s future.”