Belgium has just formed a new government. It is a coalition of seven parties, including both the Belgian Green Parties Ecolo and Groen. One long term policy of most European Green Parties is to phase out nuclear power. The chart above has been produced by the Belgian Federal Planning Bureau and predicts a big rise in the use of fossil gas. This quite naturally is drawing considerable criticism as just when Belgium, like all countries, should be rapidly decarbonising, it threatens to increase emissions.
However I think the graph is wrong. It predicts solar increasing from 5% to 6% between 2015 and 2050, and wind from 8% to 32% over the same period. This to me seems a massive underestimate of both. Solar and wind have been getting steadily cheaper, more efficient and with higher capacity factors for many years, and this trend is predicted to continue. The chart, and much of the debate on Twitter and elsewhere assumes the choice is between nuclear and gas, both of which are already costly, each have environmental downsides and future costs look high.
Belgium is already ramping up its offshore wind farms and has plans for more. Better insulated buildings, more efficient appliances, more walking, cycling, home-working and public transport should all act to decrease overall energy demand. So too will the transition from a throwaway linear economy to a circular economy. Gradually pretty well all new buildings everywhere will have solar panels installed.
Two trends that do not appear on this chart are of significance. The first is distributed local energy storage. Many houses will have batteries, in electric cars and larger static ones. Green hydrogen will also be produced at scale. All these will facilitate the greater take up of wind and solar, so together they will make up more than the 38% predicted in the graph. They may make up 70%, possibly 90%, of Belgian electricity demand by 2050.
The second trend is long distance renewable energy trading. Belgium, like Germany, will probably be a net energy importer, being densely populated, quite highly industrialized and with relatively poor wind and solar resources. Denmark is already planning to export wind power to Holland, Germany and Poland to help them decarbonize. Scotland, Norway and Iceland all look well positioned to be net energy exporters, with their huge wind, hydro and geothermal resources and relatively low energy demand. However the biggest renewable energy exporters are likely to be from the sunniest countries.
North Africa is one huge area where solar will be developed at scale. Morocco’s Ouarzazate solar park is one of the most exciting energy infrastructure projects anywhere on Earth. Many more large solar parks will be built, utilizing both concentrating solar thermal and solar photo-voltaic systems, and will also have on site energy storage with batteries for very short duration of a few minutes to a few hours, solar thermal heat stores for up to 24 hours, and on-site electrolysis for hydrogen production and so energy storage over weeks, months or even years. Energy will be exported via high voltage direct-current cable and as hydrogen using tankers or pipelines.
Germany is investigating purchasing green hydrogen from Australia, and Australian entrepreneur Mike Cannon-Brookes is planning to connect a cable from Australia to Singapore to supply 20% of Singapore’s electricity. The long distance trade in renewable energy is a relatively new phenomenon, and consequently often overlooked by energy planners. It will be a huge global industry very quickly: the economics look good, and it will be vital for global decarbonisation.
So back to Belgium and their new coalition: my advice to them is hold fire on any new investments in fossil gas, even if that means a slower ramping down of existing older gas and nuclear power stations. Invest in demand reduction through changes to buildings, transport, work patterns, circular economy etc. Invest in renewables, energy storage, and interconnection and longer distance sourcing of green hydrogen.