Belgian perspective on innovation within the EU Energy Union Policy

By Lieve Wierinck, MEP and Lydia Peeters, Flemish Minister for Finances, Budget and Energy
Summer 2019

Many GoT fans would disagree if I say that winter is a yearly season and comes every year, at quite a predictable time. Nevertheless, we can all agree that winter can be quite unpredictable and can give us unsteady supplies in our energy security.

The recent temporary shutdown of several nuclear power plants in Belgium is a reminder of the need to redirect our entire national energy supply system. The situation of the fallout of the nuclear power plants has led to an increased dependency of Belgium on electricity imports from neighbouring countries. This dependency is already relatively high: in 2016 only Luxembourg and Malta had a higher import rate than Belgium.

This underlines the need for a real Energy Union; a Union of which regional cross-border cooperation and a well-functioning European, interconnected electricity market are the building blocks to secure our energy supply in Belgium. Not to have such an Energy Union will inevitably result in energy insecurity, accompanied by vast economic risk as a result. Last winter, pessimistic prognoses became reality as Belgium was forced to call upon its neighbouring countries to provide assistance to ensure the availability of import capacity and help reduce load shedding. In addition, Belgian authorities have taken a number of safeguard measures to preserve security of power supply, bringing additional capacity back to the market.

Belgium is one of the best-connected countries for gas in the European Union with a highly diversified gas supply. This brings numerous advantages and opportunities. Whether synthetic, green gas, or hydrogen, all can be used for seasonal energy storage. By 2025, it could presumably be possible to import 50% of the peak capacity.

However, there is also a dangerous downside to this comfortable position. Belgium is developing an increasing level of dependency that is a consequence of its import capacity, the evolution of the available production capacity in neighbouring countries and the actual available commercial capacity on the interconnections. In 2018, the Member State shattered one import record after another, with the highest import levels in history at the very end of the year. On 26 December, at one point, Belgium imported 5,234MW, which comes close to the total of the entire Belgian core park (5,92MW).

In the past legislation, the Belgian federal government of 2014-2019 searched for a common, more sustainable approach in order to solve the bottleneck problem in the long term. In March 2018, the federal government and the three regional governments agreed on the Interfederal Energy Pact, which provides a long-term vision on how Belgium intends to handle the energy transition. As Belgium has committed to fully phasing out nuclear energy by 2025, there is need for significant additional investments in power generation, as well as in interconnection capacity, smart grids and storage.

"We can't outrun 'em, but we can outsmart 'em"
In order to phase out the nuclear capacity in Belgium, there is a high need to invest in climate mainstreaming. (Former) Flemish Minister for Energy Bart Tommelein has set the pace for an ambitious strategy.

Installed capacity in Belgium by production technology 

A good example are the grants to six new floating solar panel projects. Together, the solar projects will receive a maximum of €4.1 million in support, representing 11MW of renewable energy.

Each of these projects has an innovative character and is testing a number of innovations. For example, they introduce lightweight solar panels, double-sided solar panels with active cooling, special anchoring in the ground and verges, raft structures that can withstand large water level fluctuations, snow loads and ice pressure, and so on.

The former Minister gives an important signal as innovation plays a key role in achieving our renewable energy objectives. This will be the basis of the energy transition. Let there be no misunderstanding: Our prime weapon and ally in the battle against climate change is innovation!1

In addition to new investments, it is important that the relevant production factors are available, in particular the skilled labour forces. In Belgium we urgently need to address labour shortages, we run specifically short of people with the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics)-skills and competences. Thus, additional investment and reform of our education system is a vital part of the solution.

Every Member States has its particular problems. However, we do see a common denominator in certain trends that demand an approach at EU-level. One of those is the continuous need to invest in new technologies, techniques and new sources of energy.

As the shadow rapporteur in the Regulation and Implementation of Horizon Europe, I persistently pleaded that at least 35% of the projects shall revolve around climate mainstreaming. What we have also noticed in the previous evaluations is that there is a (co-)relation between the success rate of a Member State to obtain such funding and the rate of its own investments in research and innovation. Member States have pledged to dedicate 3% of their GDP to research and innovation by 2020. So far, Belgium is at 2,54%, with Flanders at 2,7%. By the end of 2020, Belgium will have received €1.38 billion from the 8th Framework Programme Horizon 2020. Only through a strong commitment from the Member States, the EU can be a key enabler of new technologies.

Smart investments in innovation are vital for dependent countries. Current Flemish Minister for Energy Lydia Peeters has laid down the provisional banding factor of 0.944 for the floating solar panel park "Floating PV Groeve Schans Sibelco" in Dessel in a Ministerial Decree. Based on the provisional banding factor, the investor will have a good estimate of the support to which he is entitled. After the delivery of the environmental permit, the final banding factor is assigned.

"We expect a higher return from these floating solar panels due to the new technologies. Support from the Flemish government remains necessary for profitability, but we avoid over-subsidies.", said Minister Lydia Peeters.2

With funding programmes such as Horizon Europe, worth €100 billion, and with national initiatives to enable smarter and more sustainable energy solutions, gas and oil imports are slowly but surely on the retreating end of the scales. In the end, this will not only enable the transition. It will become a driver for sustainable growth and a source for renewed wealth that will provide the basis for our future welfare State.

Contact details:
Lieve Wierinck, MEP
Rue Wiertz 60, 1047 Brussels Office WIE 03U029