Government chooses energy course in dense fog

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While energy giant Engie Electrabel is putting pressure on the discussion about keeping nuclear power plants open, it remains unclear whether our country will be able to close the energy gap by 2025.

The government does not want to make a final decision until the end of next year whether it will close all power stations in 2025, or whether it will still keep some nuclear reserve on hand. According to Engie Electrabel, there will not be enough time left to make the necessary investments for an extension. Nevertheless, the company spread a few tweets on Wednesday afternoon in which it still keeps ‘the two possibilities of closure and extension’ open.

Observers see a ‘power play’ between the energy giant and the green energy minister, Tinne Van der Straeten. She does not want to give in to the pressure of Engie Electrabel to decide faster. The energy company, for its part, is pushing up its price. ‘If it turns out to be really necessary to renew next year, Engie will discuss that. But it will then be an expensive operation, ‘says one observer.

In any case, it is certain that our country currently has insufficient capacity to cope with the failure of nuclear power plants. What specialists disagree about is how much and what production we must and can build up in the coming years to cope with this.

Rampwinter

A whole range of factors explain these divergent estimates. In its scenario, Elia took into account the risk that a large part of the nuclear capacity in France would be lost in a ‘disaster winter’, which would prevent our country from importing French electricity. Critics find that assumption exaggerated.

‘Elia also does not take the warmer climate into account, in which the risk of winter cold spells has become much smaller,’ says Bram Claeys of Regulatory Assistance Project, an NGO that provides policy advice on the energy transition. ‘In the coming years we will also be able to manage energy demand in a more targeted manner with the accelerated roll-out of digital meters, which means that less capacity is required.’ A new, more detailed estimate from Elia is in the works, but it will not be ready until June next year.

Import

Regardless of the size of the shortage, there is the question of where the extra energy should come from. Importing more seems an option in theory, and Elia is also investing heavily in new links to exchange power with neighboring countries on a large scale. ‘But those are projects that will take almost ten years and that we will not have finished by 2025,’ says spokeswoman Marleen Vanhecke.

In an ‘optimistic’ vision, it must be possible to eliminate the shortage by 2025 with a mix of renewable energy and technological solutions, such as more wind turbines, more storage capacity and thorough demand management. ‘All in all, according to my calculations, it is possible to generate an extra 2 gigawatts in this way,’ says Claeys.

Other specialists assume that a large part of the lost production must be collected by gas-fired power stations. They have the advantage that they can be flexibly switched ‘on and off’. Their big disadvantage is the extra emission of CO2, while our country is already on its way to becoming one of the ‘dirtiest’ European producers, according to a recent study by the think tank Ember.



There are also risks associated with gas-fired power stations. The European Commission has yet to approve the Belgian support mechanism (CRM) to stimulate investment in those plants.

Permits

In principle, the extra CO2 emissions in Belgium will be compensated by a European emission allowance trading system. As demand for and the price of those allowances increases, even dirtier power stations elsewhere in Europe will be priced out of the market, reducing emissions across Europe as a whole.

But there are also risks associated with gas-fired power stations. The European Commission has yet to approve the Belgian support mechanism (CRM) to stimulate investment in those plants. Moreover, our country has a sad reputation for the long lead time of permits and procedures. The big question is therefore whether those power stations will be there on time. That there is no (more) time to lose is one of the few things that everyone in the energy debate agrees on.

In the second half of 2021, the many question marks will hopefully have been largely resolved. It must then become clear whether additional measures are needed, such as reactivating old power stations from the ‘strategic reserve’, or extending the operation of one or two nuclear reactors. Emergency options that the end user may feel in their wallet.

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