Does Belgium really keeps some of its neighboring countries from having blackouts? That is the strong claim from the Belgium Prime Minister made at the end of last year in his response to the criticism of his current energy policy (see previous post). That is hard to believe, so I tried to find more information about which countries Belgium kept from blackouts and how much electricity we had to spare back in December. On the same web page that reported on the response of the Prime Minister, there was also the response of the Minister of Energy and luckily she made some clarifications (translated from Dutch, my emphasis):
What is going on? The problems in France are gigantic. Of their 61 GW capacity, they have 35 GW available today. This means that they have to count on imports so that they don’t have a blackout, no shutdown this winter. And where do their imports come from? It comes from Belgium. Belgium, traditionally an importer from France, exports today its electricity to France. It is about 2.8 GW. This means that we have two power plants permanently running in Belgium to supply France with electricity.
That doesn’t make any sense. Not sure which two power plants together have that capacity, but 2.8 GW is roughly one fourth of the total Belgian capacity that was needed at the beginning of December last year! It seems pretty unlikely that we were able to dedicate at least that much capacity to export to France. I write “at least”, because, remember, our Prime Minister claimed that Belgium kept countries (plural) from having blackouts. That means that there should be at least one other country that Belgium prevents from having blackouts. So, how is it possible that Belgium suddenly has more than one fourth of its capacity to spare this winter?!?! That is nevertheless what they both the Prime Minister and the Minister of Energy are suggesting.
Time to take a look at the data…
Looking at the cross-border physical electricity flow on the Elia website, this is the flow between Belgium and France on December 8 (the day that the Prime Minister and the Minister of Energy made those claims):
Positive values are export, so around the time that the claims were made, the physical flow on the Belgium – France border was indeed solely export to France. Looking more closely at the numbers, the average capacity of that flow is 2827 MW that day.
Also, the flow between Belgium and Luxembourg was solely export to Luxembourg:
Granted, the average capacity was much less (133 MW), but the export to France and Luxembourg together amounts to 2960 MW. That is roughly the capacity of three large nuclear power reactors…
That same pattern was seen for at least the two previous weeks, so I think I identified Luxembourg as the second country that “Belgium keeps from blackouts”.
At first glance, that looks pretty good for the claim of both the Prime Minister and the Minister of Energy.
However, one question still kept nagging me: how on earth is it possible that Belgium suddenly has one fourth of its electricity capacity to spare? December is in winter (close to the highest demand of the year) and Belgium had one nuclear reactor less (our current Government decommissioned one large reactor last fall).
Okay, I could somehow understand that we currently have a relatively soft winter (therefor a lower electricity demand) plus electricity demand is already lower than normal because of the steep energy prices. But then, 2.8 to almost 3 GW? I am having a hard time believing that.
It all began to make more sense when I looked at the physical flow of electricity between the other countries that have an interconnection with Belgium. Let’s start with the Netherlands:
Belgium imported electricity during the entire day from the Netherlands at an average capacity of 1449 MW, so Belgium imported from the Netherlands already half of what it exported to France.
Also Belgium imported electricity from Germany during the entire day (except for one quarter hour when Belgium barely exported to Germany):
This at an average capacity of 693 MW. The difference begins to become smaller.
The flow between Belgium and UK shows periods of import and export, but the flow is skewed towards import into Belgium:
Average capacity of the difference was 127 MW import into Belgium.
That is a much more nuanced story. Belgium didn’t just happen to have about 2.8 GW of its capacity to spare as was suggested. Sure, Belgium exported with an average capacity of 2.8 GW to France (and 0.133 GW to Luxembourg), but that doesn’t mean that some of our power plants were completely devoted to this, as was suggested by the Minister of Energy. Most of what was exported to France and Luxembourg was compensated by import especially from the Netherlands, but also from Germany and the UK. So, the claim that Belgium has “two power plants” permanently running to keep France from experiencing blackouts is quite a mischaracterization. The net capacity that Belgium had to spare was way less than 2.8 GW.
That was not the only mischaracterization. 2.8 GW is a lot according to Belgian standards, but it is just peanuts when it comes to the demand of France in winter. That means that “keeping France from having blackouts” is also a mischaracterization. I think that “helping to keep France from blackouts” (together with other bigger countries with much more resources) is much closer to the truth.
How much was then that average Belgian net spare capacity during that day? It was on average 2827 + 133 – 1449 – 693 – 127 = 691 MW. The day before that it was 671 MW. The two days before that, Belgium imported more electricity than it exported.
Luckily, the previous Government extended the life of two small nuclear reactors with a total capacity of 890 MW, so Belgium had an extra 890 MW capacity during those winter days that it wouldn’t have otherwise. If it were not for the previous Government’s decision, Belgium might not been able to contribute much.
The reason why both Ministers tried to take credit for something that they didn’t accomplish is I think rather obvious. Their policy is to decommission nuclear power as quickly as possible and they got quite some flak for it from the opposition as well as from their coalition partners, so my guess is they want to demonstrate that Belgium can get along fine with less nuclear power. They were able to do that by focusing solely on the export to France, therefor suggesting that Belgium had plenty of its capacity to spare this winter and therefor more than enough operational capacity available in order to close other reactors…
Don’t you have something similar to this page, which shows the power situation in Scandinavia? Where you can see the flows and prices in real time, and the net export/import balance. https://www.svk.se/om-kraftsystemet/kontrollrummet/
Not that I know of. Elia has the cross-border physical flow page, but one can only select 1 day and optionally compare it with another day. Unfortunately, there is no download option.
Elia shares its data with Entsoe:
(Transmission > Cross-Border Physical Flows > Border Country)
and they have this data in a someone better format for download, but still quite some effort is needed to make it presentable.