lundi 17 novembre 2014

Belgium: concerns about a possible shortage arise

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"Les Échos" 16/11

Tihange nuclear power plant (courtesy of skynetblogs. be)

HIGHLIGHT – In Belgium, three nuclear reactors have been stopped and thus may jeopardize power supply in upcoming winter. An interesting case observed with attention in France, where power shortage may happen as soon as winter 2015.
To know if you will get light this winter, please click here. 
In Brussels in early September, the Interior minister published a wide map of the country allowing people to see if they may experience power shortage during winter, town by town and even street by street. The reason of this situation lies in the stop of two on seven Belgian nuclear reactors, Doel 3 and Tihange 2 namely, since spring, because of the presence of micro-cracks in their tanks. Electrabel, GDF Suez’ subsidiary, has been operating these facilities since thirty two years. But also there has been a third reactor out of power, Doel 4, following a mysterious sabotage, this summer. For an overall 20,600 megawatts (MW) of power production capacity (among which 4,400 coming from solar and wind), 3,200 are unavailable, thus rising the risk of a power shortage on a wide scale for next winter.
Elia, the manager of the power transport network, has calculated the risk very precisely: it would amount to 49 up to 116 interruption hours, depending on winter temperatures, thus corresponding to a possible few daily hours of load-shedding during several ten or so days for a significant part of the Belgian population. Suddenly, everybody has become aware of the extent our lives depend from power: thus what would happen for trains circulation, money withdrawals, winding up shutters, cows milking or freezer unfreezing?

Cutting supply
Chaussée of Waterloo, in the middle of the Uccle quartier, in Brussels chic surburb, the manager of Jaco’s brasserie heard of the risk of power cut-off in the local press. But Théo Athanas became really aware of it when he received the visit of a generators dealer, who offered him an equipment of … € 20,000 to enable him to make his lunchtime and dinner services without any power shortage. His small business would be badly hit by load-sheddings, which would take place during peak load periods, namely between 5 and 8 pm and between 11,30 am to 1pm. “I have fifteen employees and I can’t wait the end of power cut-off to start the service!”, sighs the manager. His power supplier, Electrabel, sent him to his power distributor, namely Sibelga. “That’s the politics of fait accompli, whereas we pay quite a large amount for gas and power”, he fulminated: a monthly € 4,000.
If Théo Athanas is affected by possible power cut-offs, it’s because of an history meander:in order to limit disruption, Belgian towns counting more than 50,000 inhabitants won’t experience load-shedding, and particularly the 19 towns composing Brussels-Capital,  save this Uccle quartier of several thousands of power meters, known of every local French as it shelters the Jean-Monnet French secondary school.This part of the town is supplied by a high voltage post located out of Brussels area, and thus, composing a part of the plan of power cut-off. That’s impossible to escape it by arguing about the location in Brussels or raising the issue of population density: the operator shall cut power supply from a high voltage post, or a “cabine” in Belgian officialese, supplying a large area. In Uccle, the avenue where there is the French secondary school and its adjacent streets may be in black in case of peak load.
Foreseeing problems
The country has been break down in five zones, each one being break down in six parts: The operator of the network will cut-off power a first part of each zone during several hours, amounting thus to 500 MW of power, then a second one if it’s not enough, and so on. Zones will change from one day to another, to break down efforts.The aim consists in managing the shortage in order to avoid the collapse of the network – the black-out –which would entail consequences going far beyond Belgian borders and which would be really long to be tackled with. Moreover, the crisis has sparked dissensions between the Flemish and Walloons, as they accused each other to be privileged in case of power shortage….
All the economic partners have been involved to anticipate problems, from the Belgian National Bank, to Comeos, the Belgian distribution federation, which is responsible to control the cold chain integrity by supermarkets. In case of programmed power cut-off, inhabitants will be warned 24h in advance by radio and television, and a leaflet will be distributed in the streets affected by this shortage. The public authorities are now making recommendations: don’t open the frigo for nothing, make everything cook in a single pall, and use preferably SMS to communicate. Elia is concerned that, in case consumer are warned of an imminent shortage, they reload their devices during the preceding hours at maximum, thus catching the network unawares…
For other sectors, Sibelga, the Brussels distributor, warned that people must prepare themselves. “If you need power for your health, please use the emergency services calling 112”, it points. And “if your company’s management is threatened by a power cut-off, you’ll do better in implementing a second-hand solution at any moment”. “In normal conditions, a power shortage may always happen”, says the operator.
“ Imbalance tariffs”
From the side of power production, Elia has yet mobilized all the available resources to minimize a possible power cut-off. A tender has been launched to constitute “a strategic reserve”, composed of two gas power plants which announced their closure, namely Vilvorde, owned by Germany’s E. ON, and Saraing, owned by EDF Luminus. Some major industrials accounts have accepted to postpone their consumption in case of need, with a cash compensation. All these measures will add 850 MW of production capacity. Moreover Electrabel has divided the duration of the maintenance of Tihange 1 reactor, to make it available this winter.
Belgium, which is located in the core of the European grid and which is a structurally power importer (whose two thirds came from France last year), has thus requested the help of its neighbors. But there are technical limits: the number and the size of the very high voltage lines between Belgium and its neighburs, namely limited to 3,500MG of import capacity at best. As each power supplier is responsible of its customers’ supply, the kilowatt/hour on the wholesale market may experience a sharp increase during highly tensed periods. “ The market partners shall pay an imbalance tariffs set at €4,500/megawatt/hour ( thus around 100 times the normal tariff, author’s note), for each megawatt/hour consumed by their clients which would not have been produced, imported or avoided thank to the flexible management of the demand in their portfolios”’, warned Elia.
The worst may not happen. It would heavily depend on the weather, which has been fair so far, whereas the government hopes that Doel 4 will be brought in line again in January. This episode may have some positive effects. First, consumers are more aware about the need of moderation. On November, 3rd, Elia launched its “power indicator”: green, orange, red or black. This indicator shall be presented daily at the television, to warn about the tension or the need to control one’s consumption, or not. Perex, the  circulation centre for Walloon area, has also been requested to study a possible extinction of a part of highway. Then Coreso, which groups several European networks operators, will make some experiments, such as circulate more power, at a given temperature, on some lines,  to see if it comes through”. Thus it will be possible to maximize trans-border exchanges.
Facing the same problem elsewhere
Neighbouring countries are observing the Belgian case with much interest. That’s a natural experience for France, whereas RTE, the transport network operator, has announced that winter 2015-2016, and above all, the next one, will be tense in case of very cold winter. “The Belgium situation is the example we find almost everywhere in Europe”. And everybody starts to ask the relevant questions in the relevant sense. Now, it’s high time to get the relevant answers”,  said Stéphane Brimont deputy CEO of GDF Suez European energy branch. In 2012, Electrabel, its subsidiary, has already closed two gas power plants, with a kind of arm-wrestle with the authorities about an insufficient profitability of production means, whereas the drop of price market has freezed new investments for all operators. “ We were pressed to make the most possible interconnexions instead of being able to maintain our own production capacities. But that’s a kind of illusion: if France faces shortages, we may open the taps, nothing will flow”, highlights Luc Hujoel, Sibelga CEO. “Intuitively, I am less concerned than the Belgian government, since the country is well interconnected with powerful neighbors. But the Belgian situation illustrates heavily the use of the capacity market”, said Dominique Maillard, president of RTE’s Supervisory Board . Instead of strategic reserves and of tenders for new production means, France through RTE will “build a capacity mechanism”, intending thus to provide supply security.
A possible power shortage in Belgium already modifies the power balances. Some Belgian towns have signed a peace agreement with Elia to end the judicial cases which were blocking projects to modernize the network. That’s the case of Bruges or Maldegem, where a 380,000 volt line shall be built between Zeebrugge and Zomergem. According to Elia,a “compromise” has been drafted to “improve the landscape integration”  of the new line. In addition, a new tender has been issued to build a new power plant.
Following a government change and the arrival to a more nuke-friendly coalition to power last month, the choice of a progressive coming out of nuclear made in 2012 is also questioned.  The Doel 1 and Doel 2 reactors (each one producing 450 MW), which should have closed definitely in 2015 after forty years of operations, may thus benefit from a ten years operating extension, if the State and GDF Suez find an agreement about their profitability.