Thu, Jul 18 2024 18 July, 2024

Belgium’s gas dependence resilient as green transition faces hurdles

Belgium’s dependence on natural gas is expected to remain strong in the coming years as nuclear power is gradually phased out and the country’s green transition faces challenges.

Panoramic aerial drone view of a wind park near Brecht in Belgium (Photo: Adobe Stock/Bjorn B)

Belgium is a densely populated country with a small coastline and landmass and with a relatively large industrial base which is hard to decarbonise on the country’s path to a green transition. These are some of the factors that pose challenges to Belgium’s efforts to cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 55% by 2030, compared with 1990 levels, and to reach the net zero target by 2050, as stipulated in EU law.

“Belgium has some challenges to overcome in making the energy transition. In some cases, these are the legacies of historical choices, or simply traits of geography. They include a large number of energy-intensive industries,” Thijs Van de Graaf, Associate Professor of International Politics at Ghent University, told Gas Outlook.

“Our spatial planning is very scattered, with a lot of ribbon development, and we have a very high population density. We also have an old, poorly insulated building stock, and a dense road network.”

Van de Graaf also noted that the overall renewable potential, including offshore wind, is limited compared with other countries and that hydropower capacity is small, all of which has been tapped.

Of course, Belgium has taken steps to expand renewable energy and decarbonise its economy. There are, for example, a number of hydrogen and carbon capture and storage (CCS) projects at the early planning stages, including the potential transporting of CO2 from industrial clusters via pipeline or ships to Norway for offshore storage.

As for offshore wind, total capacity currently totals 2.3 GW and more projects are underway. The government targets 8 GW capacity by 2040 with up to 3.5 GW in the Princess Elisabeth Zone (PEZ) in the North Sea. The publication of the tender documents for the next offshore wind auction for PEZ is foreseen by the end of 2024 and the first projects are expected to be up and running by 2029. The auction model is based on two-way Contracts for Difference (CfDs).

Yet, as with other countries, the outlook for offshore wind is subject to uncertainty linked to cost increases and supply chain issues.

“The main challenges are the supply chain as a lot of European countries are launching tenders for offshore wind that have to be finished before 2030. Another important issue for Belgium is the needed extension of the onshore electricity transmission grid,” Bérénice Crabs, Secretary General at the Belgian Offshore Platform, told Gas Outlook.

Not ambitious enough: EC

In its draft National Energy and Climate Plan (NECP), submitted to the European Commission in December 2023, Belgium foresees a 21.7% share of renewables in final energy consumption by 2030, up from around 13% now, under a ‘With Additional Measures’ (WAM) scenario. In its response to the NECP, the European Commission recommended that the renewables target should be increased to at least 33%, in order to contribute to the EU’s aggregate target of 42.5% renewables in final energy consumption by 2030.

In electricity, Belgium is heavily dependent on output from its two nuclear power plants, Tihange and Doel which in 2023 generated more than 40% of the country’s electricity, according to data from TSO Elia. Belgium had previously set a target to completely phase out nuclear energy by 2025. However, after the war in Ukraine, and the subsequent ‘gas crisis’, the phase-out policy has been partly reversed, and two reactors with a combined capacity of 2 GW will keep running for an additional 10 years beyond the initial shutdown date of 2025.

Gas accounted for about 25% of electricity generation in 2023, and the draft NECP suggests the role of gas will strengthen in the coming years. Under the WAM scenario, the share of natural gas in the energy mix reaches almost 32% in 2030, up from close to 27% in 2022.

Russian LNG imports

Natural gas consumption in Belgium is almost entirely covered by imports and the country has faced criticism for continuing to import Russian LNG via its regasification terminal in Zeebrugge.  Belgium, together with Spain and France, accounted for about 80% of Russian LNG imports in 2023, according to the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA).

Angelos Koutsis, Energy Policy Officer at Bond Beter Leefmilieu, a Flemish environmental federation, told Gas Outlook that Belgium accounts for about 72% of all Russian LNG trans-shipment operations in the EU, thus facilitating LNG exports to non-EU countries.

A ban on Russian LNG trans-shipments could be included in the EU’s 14th package of sanctions against Russia, however within Belgium there is opposition by the Flemish Region and on the European level unanimity is needed in the council for the sanctions to be adopted, meaning countries such as Hungary could potentially block it, Koutsis says.

“The Flemish Nationalist government is opposing a ban in their efforts to prove that Belgium as a country doesn’t work, hence Belgium has no official position in the council, which makes it more difficult to convince other member states of the trans-shipment ban, because even the biggest trans-shipper – Belgium – is forced to be ambiguous about their support for an EU ban,” he says.

As spokesperson for Belgium’s energy minister, Tinne Van der Straeten, noted that the European Union is phasing out the dependency of Russian LNG by 2027 in the context of the REpowerEU goals. 

“Belgium is following the European guidelines,” the spokesperson said.