Energy transition is a big challenge, no matter where you live, but certainly in a metropolitan area like Brussels. Sibelga did not make everyday choices in recent years, but the distribution system operator was determined to ensure a pathway to decarbonized energy through a fair and affordable energy transition. Where are we today, anno 2030.

Wind energy is not an option in Brussels – there is only one wind turbine in the city and I am looking at it now, out there in front of our headquarters, as I write this from my office. Capturing industrial waste heat is also not an option – we have relatively little industry. There’s really only one possibility for renewable electricity production in Brussels itself: solar energy.

Inne Mertens

Inne Mertens

CEO Sibelga

Sibelga as a market facilitator

In 2030, Sibelga fully plays the role of ‚notary‘ of the energy sector. It facilitates the provision of new energy services through its smart meters, data, and GDPR. After several discussions, Sibelga and Elia found a modus vivendi and common vision on the balancing responsibilities Sibelga needed to take. Sibelga now plays a balancing role in order to avoid imbalance in certain districts in Brussels while reconciling balancing and congestion activities on its network. It is indeed the role of the DSO to ensure the security of the access to electricity at the level of the energy consumer or in certain districts by making the necessary investments in the network and actioning the flexibility of the customer. 

Sibelga also facilitates the creating of energy communities. In 2022, there were only 5 communities spread throughout Brussels. But in barely eight years, the number has significantly increased representing 20% of Brussels’ total electricity consumption. Once an energy community has formed, we place the necessary intelligent energy meters at all the members of the community to calculate how much energy each member consumes and produces every 15’. We then send the consumption and production data to the energy community administrator, who bills each community member for the produced and autoconsumed energy, and to the energy supplier for the remaining necessary energy.

However, we leave the creation of energy communities to commercial players. Today, in 2030, energy suppliers fully take on this role. In the early 2020s, they were more likely to see these communities as a threat, but by now they have realized the value of it and are helping to create them. Energy production has been uberized by the growing active role played by the customer.

But what about heating?

Integrating solar energy and electric mobility into the Brussels electricity grid will only have led to local congestion problems in 2030. But heating is another matter. In 2022, 50% of the final energy consumption in Brussels was natural gas for the heating of homes and businesses. And the problem is: everyone is cold at the same time. If we would heat all Brussels consumers electrically today, all together, we would reach unfeasible peaks in electricity consumption.

We did a study of alternatives to electric heating as early as 2022. An electric heat pump only works adequately in well-insulated homes and preferably with underfloor heating, which requires huge renovations. Heat pumps with geothermal energy then? Also not an option in Brussels. The only possibility left is air-to-air heat pumps, which are less performant.

Why not with ... hydrogen?

It became clear: we needed to heat with another molecule as part of a diversified mix of solutions for heating besides electrification. This could be biomethane or synthetic gas, but we also wanted to analyze whether hydrogen would be an option. From our study, hydrogen proved to be a possible solution for heating, especially in those neighborhoods where homes are difficult to renovate.

Hydrogen was expensive but taking the total cost (including the cost of renovations and managing the system costs) into account it appeared in some cases feasible, both economically and technically. We had to replace certain sleeves and taps, but we could simply reuse the polyethylene pipes of our grid. And to avoid the need for everyone to have a hydrogen boiler in their home, we would build heat networks at the neighborhood level.

One main question that remained was and is: would there be enough hydrogen? Who could supply it? And would that hydrogen be green? But in the end, whether the solution is biomethane, synthetic gas, or hydrogen, the Brussels Region is always going to have to import green molecules.

Have we realized this ambitious project today, in 2030? Not quite yet. But if all goes well, by 2050, we will be completely off natural gas in Brussels, period.

In the bigger picture, hydrogen became technically and economically feasible

Key to success

The key to success for this whole story, of course, was the customer. For starters, the customer had to be able and willing to come along. A very large renovation program started in Brussels in 2022, but we also had an energy crisis. Were Brussels residents still able to free up enough resources to renovate? After all, in 2022, 60% of Brussels residents were renting and 30% were living in energy poverty.

In recent years, Sibelga has therefore started to supply energy to more and more socially protected customers. Not only through a social tariff, but also by placing solar panels on the roofs of social housing, in collaboration with social housing companies and the government. The residents could then buy this energy at a lower price

More flexibility needed

In addition, every energy customer had to become an active customer, consuming energy much more consciously. Only in this way could we avoid congestion and optimize balancing. We are currently working with implicit and explicit flexibility.

With implicit flexibility, we use prices to signal to the customer in which periods it is better to use energy. The charging of electric vehicles can certainly be controlled this way. Heating not so much.

Are there supply risks with certain customers or neighborhoods? Then we push the emergency button and force explicit flexibility, so that the entire network does not shut down. In 2022, we already looked at the exceptional circumstances in which this could be possible, today this has been clarified and we can actually do this. Very temporarily, of course.

Time for a master plan

The challenges in recent years have been enormous. To meet them, policy, the regulator, and the grid operators also had to come together. We had to arrive at a real cooperation model, with a holistic vision and a complete master plan for Brussels. In 2022, we already had pieces of the puzzle, but today, in 2030, we are putting the complete puzzle together. Now we have 20 years left to make it all happen. And we believe in it.

About the interviewee

Inne Mertens knows the energy sector inside out. She began her career at Electrabel in 1998, then joined ORES, Wallonia‘s largest distribution system operator, as Director of Customers & Markets in 2009. Since February 2022, she has been CEO of Sibelga, the Brussels distribution system operator for electricity and gas.

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