Meaningless metrics, episode umpteen

We got some pretty confusing information in the last few weeks. On the one hand, we got to hear that there is no long term vision for energy policy by our politicians and that this leads to the increased risk of having blackouts in winter. We were in this situation before. In the last several years we got to hear in autumn that we risk having blackouts in the next winter.

On the other hand, there was the communication that Belgium is doing just fine and is even at the top when it comes to energy policy! An example of this is a tweet from Bart Tommelein (Flemish Minister of Energy), reacting to the claim that our politicians have no long term vision on energy (translated from Dutch):

The best interconnected country in Europe, 2nd country per km2 for solar energy, 3th country in Europe per km2 for wind energy and pioneer in offshore wind. It is really not that bad. But these nuclear power plants surely need to be replaced.

Which is of course a completely meaningless answer. Even if we assume that this energy-per-km2 metric is somehow meaningful, solar and wind will not help us much in winter. Solar is not available at peak demand and wind is not reliable enough to keep us from blackouts.

It was however the claim that we are in second and third position that caught my attention. Initially, I assumed it was the same (meaningless) metric he used in the beginning of this year. Back then in January, he claimed that Belgium was in third position when it comes to solar energy per km2 and the fourth position when it comes to wind energy. Back then, it became clear that he meant that we were among the best in consumption of solar/wind energy per area (in MWh/km2).

In that post, I already mentioned that this is a meaningless metric since it depends on the area and population density of a certain country. Belgium, being a small and densely populated country, will always being in the advantage when it comes to energy consumption per area. Not just solar or wind, but any energy source.

Compare this with the recent tweet that states that we now are in second position when it comes to “solar energy” and third when it comes to “wind energy” in Europe (EU?). Hey, did we advance one position for solar as well as wind in the last eight to nine months?

The source of the consumption/km2 data used in the beginning of the year is Eurostat. The data (from 2016) was newly added at the time, so I would expect new data (2017) in the beginning of next year. When searching the Eurostat website, I indeed only found data until 2016. It couldn’t be new data from Eurostat that is the basis for the claim in the recent tweet. I also tried to replicate this result with the new 2017 BP data, but no luck there. I came to the same result as in January. How did he get to that second and third position?

Maybe he just used another dataset that was more favorable than the Eurostat or the BP dataset? But then, which one? He didn’t mention the source for his current claim.

Or maybe he misread the graphs he tweeted in January? Those graphs were created by someone from the Netherlands and that country was highlighted in red. The Netherlands was for example at the third position when it comes to wind:

Did the Minister mistakenly assumed that the highlighted country was Belgium when it in fact is the Netherlands?

None of the two seems to be the case. It took me a long time, but in the end I found an explanation for that second and third position on the Minister’s website (translated from Dutch):


Bronze for wind, silver for solar

During the conversation with his colleague, Bart Tommelein provided us with the latest figures for wind energy. There are now 503 wind turbines in Flanders with a total capacity of 1,136 MW. We overtake Netherlands when it comes to the installed power per square kilometer: with 83 kilowatt/km2 we are now in third position after Germany and Denmark. For solar panels, we stay in second position, after Malta and before Germany. “We already had a silver medal for solar panels, we now also get bronze for windmills. Of course, a lot of efforts are still needed for the energy transition, but we should feel more proud of what we have already achieved.”

Aha, that makes it clear! This record is not for Belgium, as I assumed from the tweet, but for Flanders (the Northern region of Belgium) and the data is not for consumption but for installed capacity. So when it comes to installed capacity/km2, Flanders comes at the second position for solar (after Malta) and at the third position for wind (after Denmark and Germany).

This is misleading on several accounts.

  1. He is comparing a region with countries and that is not clear from his tweet. He claims we are the 2nd country for solar energy and the 3th country for wind energy, yet means that we are the second and third as a region compared to European (EU?) countries.
  2. Terms like “solar energy per area” and “wind energy per area” are rather ambiguous. In his tweet in January it meant “consumption per area”, but in his current tweet the same term now seems to mean “installed capacity per area” (which is even more meaningless).
  3. He is comparing installed capacity per km2 of this region with installed capacity of other EU countries. The result of that will be quite meaningless. It depends for example on the ratio of offshore/onshore wind installations (offshore windmills will have a higher capacity factor than onshore) or the location of the solar panels (solar panels in Italy will have a higher capacity factor than solar panels in Finland). Even if regions/countries have the same installed capacity, the output could be quite different.
  4. His tweet is meaningless in the twitter discussion. He defends that we are among the best in installed capacity per area and even being pioneers in offshore wind. That may be a good policy for adding solar and wind power to the energy mix, but it will not help us one bit in preventing blackouts in winter.
  5. He seems to compare different timeframes. He explains that we now (the webpage dates May 2018) have a wind energy capacity of 83 kW/km2 which is better than the Netherlands. But when I look at the most recent data for installed capacity of the Netherlands (BP data of 2017), then I get a result of 102 kW/km2. When I go back a year (2016), then I get still 101 kW/km2. It is only when I go back to 2015 that I get a result below that value of 83 kW/km2. Is he really comparing the situation in Flanders in 2018 with the values of the Netherlands in 2015?

Basically, he is rather ambiguous in what he is claiming, therefor getting away with comparing a region with countries, comparing energy sources with different capacity factors and probably even using different time frames…

I have seen him making several meaningless claims before (see here, here and here) and this is yet another one. There seems to be no end to the meaningless metrics that he can find. Hopefully he is not in charge of our energy policy.

Oh wait … he is.

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