Solar and wind power doing “extremely well” in Belgium (while facing blackouts)

Metaforum, an interdisciplinary think-tank of the University of Leuven, organized a Current Events Lecture on a Sustainable Energy Supply for Belgium last Monday (the video is available here). The incentive for this lecture was the unavailability of the majority of our nuclear power plants and the spectre of an electricity shortage this winter.

The speakers are a very diverse bunch: there are two electrical engineers, one economist and one philosopher. The title suggested that the focus is on sustainable energy sources, so I was especially interested in the lectures presented by the two engineers (first hour of the video).

The first speaker (Dirk Van Hertem) is a professor at the division of electrical energy and computer architectures (Faculty of Engineering Science) and gave a balanced overview of the current Belgian energy situation.

It was different for the second speaker (Johan Driesen), also a professor at the same division. He started with:

Okay, now after the actually sad story that Dirk had to bring to you, I want to bring you a more optimistic story.

A more optimistic story? My experience with energy experts claiming to bring an “optimistic story” is that they mostly bring a very one-sided story and that is exactly what we got.

After the part of his presentation where he explains that renewables are “cheap” (maybe more about that in a follow-up post), he explained why he is so optimistic (the lecture is in English, that is rather easy for me because I don’t have to translate, so the Dunglish doesn’t originate from me this time, but from the speaker):

And then you may question how well we were doing actually in Belgium. Because here in Belgium we are always complaining, I think there is a fantastic word in Dutch for that, “zageventen” [people who complain a lot]. So that is something that I really regret in this very negative messaging about electricity: nobody cares anymore whether we were doing well or not. That is why I want to show you these two graphs. Here you see two very relevant rankings of how much renewables we are actually already using in Europe.

He then showed this slide:

Hey, I recognize that first graph! It has been used in the beginning of this year by our Flemish Minister of Energy for the same purpose: proving that we are doing well when it comes to (his) energy policy.

The graph is created by a Dutch energy expert and depicts the situation of the Netherlands. The Netherlands occupies the third place, therefor the third bar is highlighted in red. Driesen just added a green arrow to indicate that we have to look at the fourth position (Belgium) instead of the highlighted third position (the Netherlands).

Wind energy is not that significant in our country, nor in capacity nor in share. The same with the Netherlands. Then why is this MWh/km2 metric relevant? This is how Driesen explains it (Dunglish not mine):

Here, for instance, you see wind power per square [kilo]meter of land and we are a very densely build land, so it is not really obvious to build a lot of wind power. Look, we are number four in Europe actually.

I can agree that Belgium is a densely populated country, but that is exactly the reason why we have such a high ranking. Dividing a certain number by a small denominator gives a higher resulting number than when dividing the same number by a large denominator. It has only partly to do with how good a country is doing when it comes to wind power.

I agree that it is not obvious to build wind turbines in a densely populated country, but we also have a (small) shoreline. About 40% of our wind capacity is situated in the North Sea and nobody is living there.

To illustrate the meaninglessness of the MWh/km2 metric, we can apply this also to other power sources like for example nuclear. In that case, we are in second place. Not of the EU, but of the whole world! Not necessarily because we produce that much nuclear power, but because we are a densely populated country.

I can somehow understand that this kind of metric is used by a low-information Minister of Energy, but it was the last thing I expected in these lectures.

The second graph is solar capacity (Wp) per capita. This is why he thinks it is relevant:

And then here, this is solar energy per capita. Why is that relevant? Because we mainly put that on buildings. Buildings are proportional to the amount of people that live there. Here we are number three in Europe.

It is puzzling why he didn’t use solar electricity production per capita. The production by those panels will depend on for example the latitude. A country in South-Europe will produce much more solar power than a country in North- or West-Europe with the same Wp/capita value and roughly the same population, yet they would have the exact same ranking.

So, is he cherry picking metrics? To come back to the nuclear power comparison: if we take installed capacity per km2 as a metric, then it doesn’t even matter how many nuclear power plants are offline, we still would have a high value. Take the right metric and you can prove anything.

He continues:

And if you take the combined ranking, there are not many countries that are and good in wind and good in solar. So actually, we are doing extremely well. And still we mess up.

Okay, we are doing extremely well according to the expert, but how meaningful are these metrics when it comes to the subject of the lecture? The problem with these “good rankings” is that they are basically meaningless regarding the possible black-outs in winter. The point is that electricity demand is highest in winter, specifically at peak hours during work days. During that time, the contribution of solar power is pretty small.

This is the contribution of solar to the morning peak in winter (zero from day 1 → 59 and from day 335 → 365):

This is the contribution of solar to the evening peak in winter:

So, when we need energy the most, the contribution of solar power is the lowest. Wind power will not save us either. It is also intermittent and it is not reliably there when solar is absent. It could be windy at those moments, but that is not guaranteed at all.

That is why we “messed up”. We invested solely in solar and wind power for the last couple of decades, which is excellent for our ranking of MWh/km2 and Wp/capita, but is pretty bad when it comes to electricity security. It currently will not help us one iota to secure our electricity supply.

Concluding, are we doing excellent when it comes to solar and wind power? It depends. When we look at the arbitrary metrics of MWh/km2 and Wp/capita, then yes, we are among the best in the EU. But at the same time we are doing extremely poor when we look at our electricity security.

Maybe those “zageventen” have some right to complain after all?

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