Blackout in Belgium

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fot. Kamram Aslam, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0Belgium faces a severe risk of electrical blackout during this winter. Half of the electricity produced in Belgium comes from the seven nuclear reactors built during the 1950s. Since spring, these have encountered problem after problem. Two reactors had to be shut down because of micro-cracks discovered in vessels while a third one has been closed in July due to sabotage. They are intended to remain closed during all winter. Belgium suffers from particularly stringent bad luck but the small country is only the tip of the iceberg of a complicated situation in Europe.

A blackout refers to the collapse of a grid after a situation where no equilibrium can be found anymore between the demand and the supply of electricity. It would lead to a complete stop in electricity supply in Belgium and cause serious physical damage on the grid and power generation utilities. Since the closure of the three reactors, the electricity supply has been cut off by 25% or 3,000MW. Hence blackout is a serious threat for Belgium during winter as the consumption is the highest during this period.

A blackout would cost 120 million Euro per hour to the Belgian economy. If the power grid is down, the first sector hit will be telecommunication and transports. STIB, the transport company in Brussels, has a 3 hours back-up plan in order to evacuate the persons locked in but there will be no service anymore. Mobile phones antennas will also be deprived of electricity while critical services such as hospitals have a limited power back up of eight hours. But as a blackout would cause damages that would require several days to be fixed, it is estimated that eight hours of power shortage is the maximum the country can go through before transforming Belgium in a large-scale social experiment.

The solution found to avoid the dramatic consequences of a blackout is planned outages. When the demand peaks, Belgian authorities want first to increase the supply side. But the European grid is still massively deficient as Belgium is poorly interconnected. There is also a strategic reserve, 850MW of electricity, that can be injected into the grid, but its size will be insufficient if the demand peaks. If these measures are not sufficient, the transmission system operator (TSO) will temporarily disconnect certain consumers of the grid, depriving them of the electricity to limit the demand and the risk of blackout. Belgium has been divided into six zones, each representing 500MW. Two zones can be cut at the same time if the demand is too high. These planned outages will represent a financial cost that will not be supported by insurances, neither by the State. No compensation mechanism is put in place for now. It would be interesting to follow if any citizen estimates that the State has failed him in providing electricity and is liable for his economic losses.

Belgium is reliant for more than 50% of its energy supply on the nuclear technology. As every technology, there is an inherent risk but it is much greater in the case of nuclear power: as nuclear power plants have a very big energy production capacity, the failing of one has much greater consequences than the failing of other sources of energy. Securing its energy supply is a key word in the European arena these days, alongside diversification. Belgium is the living reminder that a forward-looking energy policy is based on a diversified number of power sources.

The Belgian grid is connected to the Netherlands and to France. A third interconnection is scheduled with Germany but will not be ready before 2019. Overall, the European grid remains largely deficient, as the interconnection between countries is largely undersized. The problem is that each European member state remains sovereign on its energy mix. This idea is over as the current situation is not sustainable. A country is connected well-enough to the grid to provoke a blackout, at the minimum on the surrounding countries, but often not enough to import more from other countries. It was already the case in 2006, when a technical incident in Germany led to a temporary shortage in entire Europe. The European Commission funds strategic infrastructure, and is probably going to do more under the 300 billion investment package, but it remains an issue notwithstanding.

Overall, in Europe the situation is precarious. ENTSO-E, European association of energy distributor, publishes each year an outlook for the coming winter. They conclude that the reliability of generation capacity is lower this year than the previous ones. The problem is present in Belgium but also in other European countries such as France, Poland or Sweden.

In conclusion, it is time to realise that access to electricity is a right and that it should be protected. For 50 years, electricity is considered as granted but economic development coupled with insufficient investment in electrical infrastructure threaten this right. Depriving some persons of the right to electricity to protect the grid is not natural to us, as we are used to unlimited access. A ministerial order is needed to expel some people of the grid, as it is a political decision they can be held responsible for. It is the lesson to learn: electricity is a resource that needs to be taken care of.

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Quentin Genard

Graduate from the Faculty of Law and Political Science, University of Liège (MA, 2012) and the Department of European Political and Administrative Studies at the College of Europe in Bruges (MA 2013). Intern at the European Movement Belgium (2010) and the Group of Research and Information on Peace and Security (Brussels, 2013). He is since associated researcher at GRIP and member of the political cabinet of a Belgian Minister, dealing with European and International Affairs.

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