Tuesday, 11 January 2022 12:45

Belgian Energy Minister: It is time to be creative and think without boundaries

Caspian Energy (CE): How urgent and topical is the issue of climate change for Belgium and the EU as a whole?

Tinne Van der Straeten, Minister of Energy of Belgium: Climate change affects everything and everyone globally. We are confronted with more extreme weather, wild fires, flooding’s, hurricanes, water shortage, decreased air quality. Climate change has acute effects on food security, natural resources and this has an impact on migration patterns fueling tensions across countries and regions. It’s not excluded that this has a multiplication effect which might have an impact on stability in different regions in the world and imperils peace.

In Belgium, as in other European countries, climate change does already have an impact.  Surface and groundwater supplies are stressed in many regions. 2020 was the warmest year on record in Belgium. This year we were confronted with heavy rains and flooding’s due to rain. Large parts of the south of Belgium were submerged, people lost their lives and next to this there is material damage that has long lasting consequences for the people in the region. We did not sit idle  but we cannot afford to dismiss what happened and continue business as usual. The Fit for 55 package is just a first step, it is the push we need but we need to think even further. It is about the future of our children. We need to think like statesman who puts a mark on the future.

CE: What is the role of the energy transition in future?

Tinne Van der Straeten: Energy is at the heart of the fight against global warming and is a vital spark of our society and economy. How we move, how we heat, how we recharge the batteries of our phones and tablets.  Energy has always had that role. Every step in the societal evolution until today is accompanied by changes in energy commodities. From kindling fire to peat and coal, over oil and gas. Energy stands for progress, for a modern society. What the Industrial Revolution was for the 19th century, the Green Deal is for the 21st century.  In each industrial revolution, energy has always been a catalyst. And it will do so again today. Energy transition also means that there might very well be not one solution that fits everyone. Some countries have Hydro power, other have wind or sun and there might be developments we do not know right now. Energy transition needs to be supported by the people. They need to understand that this is a challenge but even more an opportunity. All ideas are welcome and sometimes there is no need to pass certain stages. Some people never had a fixed telephone line but are now enjoying a normal portable phone. In some countries the phone batteries are charged with solar panels. We might skip big central distributed energy and revert to small local networks. It is not the time to improve what we know but to discover what we do not know, to be creative and think without boundaries.

CE: Which sectors of the economy will be primarily involved?

Tinne Van der Straeten: All sectors will be involved as it is not just an energy transition but a system integration. We already reaped some low hanging fruits. Company cars need to be electric as from 2026. The regions are active and have ever stricter insulation norms and support the acquisition of solar panels. This involves the building sector. Some regions in Belgium introduced a mobility score for houses. This indicates how far away you are from schools, shops , hospitals and how transportation is arranged.

 Wherever possible, we should electrify. Electric cars are a good  start. But there are difficult to abate sectors, heavy industry emits 30% of CO2 in Belgium. It is exactly this sector which cannot simply switch to electricity, neither can long haul traffic and shipping.

 Heavy industry is an important source of prosperity, which is key for the transition to climate neutrality. It produces the materials that are crucial to make the transition happen: steel, glass, aluminium, plastic and cement. The production of these materials in a climate-neutral way, require green hydrogen, a clean, CO2-free, non-polluting fuel. Belgium needs to import green hydrogen, as all the renewables will be used for electricity. We look into importing from countries and regions with an abundance of wind or sun. With a national hydrogen strategy we want to support companies and research institutions active in the field of hydrogen and hydrogen-related technologies.

In my domain we focus on infrastructure, like a hydrogen backbone, hydrogen import infrastructure, an energy island in the North Sea, increased offshore wind capacity, etc. If we make sure we build the infrastructure and the legal framework to guarantee the access of clean and affordable energy, we secure the many investments needed in the next decade. “For me, this is the most important part of my job. To design a clear framework. And yes, the framework can and will change. It is not set in stone. But the changes will be no surprises, it will be in the light of climate neutrality by 2050.”

 CE:  What is your vision, what are the targets for the Belgian energy policy in the coming years?

Tinne Van der Straeten: Setting the national target was the first priority and is based on the European targets. In order to reach climate neutrality by 2050 and to reduce greenhouse emissions by 55% by 2030. We also set a clear course: 100% renewable energy by 2050. If you don’t know which port you are sailing to, no wind is favourable. We now finally have a clear port: the energy switch to 100% renewable energy and climate neutrality by 2050. This is good for the planet and it is also the only form of energy that is becoming cheaper.

 Belgium decided in 2003 to phase out nuclear. Today, 5 out of 7 nuclear reactors cannot remain open, being too old or too expensive to safely operate. Although public debate is focusing on nuclear and gas, the energy policy is not about phasing out nuclear or building gas-fired power plants. The energy policy is about an energy switch to renewable energy, without CO2 and without waste. The cost of renewables reduces year after year. That will make us resilient in times of price hikes. If expensive energy and high electricity prices prove anything today, it is our dependency on fossil fuels.If we had had more cheap renewable energy, we would have been better protected against fluctuating prices.

CE: How will you implement and give form to the Energy transition and the structural shake-up of energy supply in Belgium?

Tinne Van der Straeten: We are in full transition to a situation where the energy supply by 2050 will be structurally different in nature and form from the current energy system. To support the needed energy investments in Belgium for guaranteeing the security of supply, we created an investment mechanism (Capacity Remuneration Mechanism, CRM). In the design, we implemented sustainability criteria: all new fossil fuel investments need to be climate neutral by 2050, with interim targets. We designed technical parameters to promote those technologies that bring storage and flexibility, much needed in a future energy system based on renewable energy. We were clear on the target, flexible, affordable and clean energy, and open on the how. We ended up with 2 gas-fired power plants, with batteries and demand side management.

 We are in full energy transition. What counts are the actions we take now in the short term, thinking of the long term. We recently decided to establish 3 GW of new offshore wind farms in the Belgian part of the North Sea. By the end of this decade, we will triple our offshore wind capacity to almost 6 GW, enough to power all Belgian households, or 25-30% of total electricity demand. When comparing the national installed offshore capacity with the number of inhabitants, Belgium already ranks third in global rankings after Denmark and the United Kingdom.

CE: What about cooperation with other European nations?

Tinne Van der Straeten: My country was at the cradle of all the cooperations in Europe we started with the BENELUX  continued in the European Union and created later on the North Sea Energy Cooperation and the Pentalateral Forum. Both cooperations are very often the frontrunners for ideas that later on are picked up by the European Union. 

 The whole year 2021 I worked hard  as president of the North Sea Energy Cooperation and we signed a new Political Declaration that agreed on key initiatives to accelerate the rate of cost-effective deployment of offshore renewable energy. This will include delivery of voluntary cooperation for joint and hybrid cross-border projects and increased levels of renewable energy interconnection among the members of the North Seas Energy Cooperation.

 The new declaration also sets out how the parties will work together on the development of improved marine spatial plans, including at sea basin level, through the development of a multi-use stakeholder approach to ensure shared usage of marine areas.

The Energy Ministers and the European Commissioner for Energy outlined their intention to harness the potential of offshore renewable energy in the North Seas for a climate neutral future in the EU, with its objective of achieving an installed capacity of at least 60 GW of offshore wind energy and at least 1 GW of ocean energy by 2030 as well as 300 GW of offshore wind energy and 40 GW of ocean energy by 2050. This will play a key role in delivering on the Paris Agreement and COP26 commitments.

 The Ministers and the Commissioner discussed how the initiative can exchange best practices on national support schemes and respective cooperation models, foster the coordination of national maritime spatial planning and offshore tendering processes and support the implementation of innovative wind projects. They also considered the role of the revision of the TEN-E Regulation and the Renewable Energy Directive, these days on the table of negotiation of the Council and the European Parliament, to connect regions currently isolated from European energy markets, strengthen existing cross-border interconnections and promote cooperation with partner countries

As president of the Pentalateral energy forum during 2021 I strongly engaged in regional cooperation towards a reliable European energy market, which offers solidarity and risk preparedness in the event of a supply crisis. This cooperation also facilitates the development of a cross-border integrated market for renewable hydrogen.

 Denmark and Belgium are both world leaders in offshore wind energy. An subseabed cable is planned between two energy islands in the offshore wind parks and will give access to additional renewable energy sources. Thanks to the interconnection, Belgium and Denmark will have direct access to large amounts of cheap renewable energy, needed for electrification of transport and heating, to decarbonize our energy-intensive industry and to meet European climate targets. Wind energy drops sharply in price and will have a positive effect on the price for consumers.  With the energy islands and the hybrid interconnection, we are once again pioneering and turning the North Sea into one large renewable power plant.


Thank you for the interview


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