As an energy pioneer, Belgium almost lost its historical advantage on the eve of its 200th anniversary. But a return to pragmatism and a willingness to move forward together have put it back on track. The widespread use of smart meters has led to a real transformation of the sector, says Marc Bensadoun, VP Customer Supply & Services BE - NL at TotalEnergies Power & Gas Belgium.
From coal mining to renewable energies, from nuclear power to the transit of hydrocarbons, Belgium‘s economic development is intimately linked to energy. A trend that has been confirmed since the beginning of this century and that is still going on today in 2030. Despite its narrow coastline and limited sunshine, the country has managed to become one of the world leaders in offshore wind power and residential solar panel installation.
VP Customer Supply & Services BE - NL TotalEnergies Power & Gas Belgium
After facing many successive crises, from Covid to energy prices, Belgium’s pioneering spirit has been highly challenged. One of the major pitfalls in establishing change was staying too hung-up on radical concepts and some dogmatism around how to accelerate the energy transition. As a symbol of this agitated period, Belgium shut down its nuclear reactor Doel 3 amidst an energy crisis after Russia invaded Ukraine.
While the decision could be explained technically, the debate surrounding the power mix was symptomatic. So was the great discrepancy between the debates on the accessibility of call centers (in the age of apps) and the Internet of Energy launched by Elia.
Fortunately, crisis is often a source of pragmatism, national cohesion, innovation, and new opportunities. All stakeholders have a role to play: the federal government, the Regions, the network operators, the energy companies, and the consumers – all of them together. A dialogue that has allowed pragmatic solutions to emerge and enable concrete progress in the energy transition and the transformation of the sector. This dialogue among stakeholders was not common in the twenties as there was not yet a culture of trust, nor bodies who would encourage it. Ensuring security of supply, transition towards decarbonization, affordability of energy needs, and new consumption need a culture of solidarity and concertation. A culture of ‘better together’ was vital for the country, the climate, and our planet. Each one had a role to play.
This has changed considerably. Energy companies are now more considered as key part of the solution. This energy crisis got us a seat at the table, and we became an important ‘sustainable’ partner in solution building - not only with a short-term view, but to shape the future of low carbon energy.
A realistic roadmap
A realistic roadmap, integrating all available low carbon energy sources has been established. Today, Belgium is champion of managing renewables, moving step-by-step towards carbon neutrality while accelerating energy sobriety and efficiency, while limiting its dependence on imports, which are often subject to the same hazards as Belgian production (availability of wind and sun). It realized that having production capacity on its own territory is a major asset ensuring security of supply, climate ambitions and affordable prices. Moreover, the roadmap took an electricity capacity mix into account that aimed to reduce system imbalanced, which were extremely high back in 2022 compared to neighboring countries.
In the wake of the advertising campaign launched in 2022 to encourage households to reduce their consumption, the sector and the authorities have been able to move forward together on numerous projects.
The energy crisis and soaring prices have served as catalysts. Consumers no longer look at their bills with a distracted eye but have become aware of the financial (and environmental) benefits of better managing their consumption. Today, in 2030, they have become true consumers and prosumers.
One of the key points of this evolution is the progressive generalization of smart meters. Belgium has gone from being a latecomer to a pioneer in this field. The authorities have succeeded in reassuring the general public and making them aware of the advantages of smart meters in the face of the many urban legends in circulation.
Today, all actors can fully exploit the data and possibilities. The consumer can more easily follow and more efficiently manage their consumption. The possibilities of data communication facilitate the optimization of the electric car charge and the storage of the production of its solar panels for example.
All this allows the consumer to rationalize their bills while contributing to stabilizing a network subjected to a higher tension in a context of transition.
This new relationship between consumers and energy providers is much more digitalized. Call centers are no longer used only as a means of emergency contact or as a last resort in the event of a specific problem. Most of the communication is done through an app.
Through these apps, the customer can find all the basic information (such as contracts and bills), request an intervention in case of a problem, and receive many tips to better manage their consumption.
The compilation of data and theoretical disaggregation schemes have made it possible for the past few years to really accompany the consumer on a daily basis. We can inform them of any deviation in their consumption and its probable origin without having multiplied the meters for each of their appliances.
The end of pure suppliers
Regarding the composition of the sector, the main evolution of the last eight years is the progressive disappearance of most of the pure suppliers. The energy crisis of 2022-2023 and the increased volatility of energy prices have taken their toll on their business model. To remain sustainable, they had to de-risk and transform their relationship with customers as a catalyst for being both strong actors in the energy transition.
Today, in 2030, the large energy companies have a major role to play. They manage the auto-production of the consumers and supply green energy for the remainder. As a supplier, they must have sufficient production capacity and needs assets to provide flexibility to the network. TotalEnergies, which has always applied an integrated model strategy for power and gas, has largely anticipated this environment.
About the interviewee
VP Customer Supply & Services BE - NL of TotalEnergies‘ gas and electricity activities in Belgium and the Netherlands, Marc Bensadoun has spent almost his entire career with the French energy giant. In particular, he oversaw the acquisition of Lampiris in Belgium and the launch of its gas and electricity activities in France.
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