Phasing Out Nuclear Energy – The Case of Belgium

Nuclear energy has been the main source of electricity generation in Belgium since the 1980s , accounting for 52% of total production in 2009. Nevertheless, the new government plans to abandon nuclear until 2025. Given the tremendous share of nuclear in the electricity sector, this represents a enormous challenge which, to a certain extent, outweighs even Germany´s daring decision to switch off its last nuclear plant in 2022.

In one of my previous posts I analyzed the situation in Germany and its potential to cope with the ambitious goal of phasing out nuclear by 2022. Then the conclusion was that there is indeed a realistic chance to meet the targets by enlarging the renewable sector. In Fig. 1 we see the distribution of the various contributions to the electricity grid in Germany in 2009.

Fig. 1 German electricity mix in 2009

Among the renewable part wind is the predominant source outweighing hydroelectricity more than twofold. Solar energy, though growing significantly during the past decade, is laging behind, its share corresponding to about 17% of the power production from windmills.

Fig.2 shows the equivalent for Belgium.

Fig. 2 Belgian electricity mix in 2009

The case of Belgium, however, differs in some aspects from the German case. First, its share of nuclear in the power grid is considerably larger than the German one. As mentioned above, this share corresponds to more than half of production output of Belgium´s power generators. In Germany, on the other hand, nuclear covered some 23% of electricity production in 2009. So, in relative terms, nuclear power has only half the weight in Germany than what is has in Belgium. Given the difference in size between the two countries, the absolute production figures are quite different with a total nuclear output of 134.9 TWh in the larger and 47.2 TWh in the smaller country. Thus, the task may look much less demanding for Belgium. However, the contribution of renewables to the electricity mix differs considerably between the two neighbours. In 2009 renewables accounted already for 16% of electricity output in Germany, whereas the corresponding value for Belgium was a mere 9%.

Supposing that the current nuclear production may entirely be replaced by renewables at the respective deadline, the two countries have to undergo respective growth rates which are significantly different from each other. In Germany, renewables may grow by an annual average of 9.3% in order to cope with the challenge, whereas in Belgium the growth rate must be some 14.6%. This gives us a solid indication about what lies ahead of the Belgian government.

What has been acheived so far? From 1998 to 2009 the primary energy production from renewable sources rose by 238% in Belgium. During the same period Germany faced an increase of 255% with both countries being by far the most dynamic in the renewable sector in Europe. Though these figures are indeed quite impressive we should not forget that during the twelve-year period from 1998 to 2009 Belgium has only five times managed to beat the growth rate it needs to keep during the next 14 years in order to switch completely from nuclear to renewables. Its German neighbour, on the other hand, could arrive at or even go beyond its expected growth rate seven times during the same period.

Thus it´s not only the fact that the smaller country needs to keep a higher annual increase than its German counterpart, but moreover Belgium is required to maintain this fast pace of growth over a longer time. Given this, the prospect of replacing all nuclear capacities with renewables does not look as optimistic as in the German case. Most likely, additional sources of electricity generation will have to be tapped. One potential candidate is gas the use of which increased by more than 270% since 1990.

Nevertheless, it will be interesting to see what share of renewable energy Belgium will have in 2025 when its last nuclear facility is supposed to leave the power grid.

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