“Natural gas plays a critical role and will continue to do so in the future”

Kassel/Brussels. Belgium’s future energy mix will be vastly different from today's. Belgium's federal planning office (Belgisch Federaal Planbureau, or FPB) has developed four separate scenarios for the country’s long-term energy supply. Danielle Devogelaer, the FPB's expert for energy and transportation issues, explains the long-term forecasts and the role which natural gas will play in the energy mix of the future.

Ms. Devogelaer, how will the energy mix develop, both medium-term and long-term?
The scenarios on which we based our forecasts of our future energy mix are quite different. If our country's energy, climate and transportation policies stay as-is, we expect predominantly volume effects as the population and the number of families keep growing and industrial activity is on the upswing again after the financial crisis. The demand for primary energy will decline slightly until 2030. From 2030 to 2050 it will gradually increase again. Greenhouse gas emissions will decline very little.

The scenarios for a more ambitious climate policy, on the other hand, look very different. The consumption of primary energy will decline further, and the reduced emission of greenhouse gases will be in accord with European climate protection plans. We will also see a change in energy sources towards renewable energies and electricity.

Efficiency is currently the main topic in the energy field. What are the challenges facing Belgium's government?
Assuming the scenario of a sustainable energy supply with less CO2, and we don’t really have any other choice, we have a lot of work to do, especially in the building sector. This is where we must become much more efficient on a large scale. We must invest in insulation and use the necessary equipment much more efficiently. We also see a lot of potential in the industrial and transportation sectors, but the greatest savings potential lies in the building sector.

What does the future of the electricity sector look like?
The electricity sector is facing a critical shift as well. Belgium is moving from power generation that is based on fossil and nuclear fuels to a two-pronged approach that is based on natural gas and renewable sources. Directing this turnaround onto the right track requires significant investments, most of which we expect to primarily come from non-governmental investors. Particularly the investments in the electricity sector, however, do not yet meet expectations because people are taking a wait-and-see attitude. This sector should actually be one of the first to strive for the turnaround towards more environmentally friendly energy sources. Once this sector operates in a sustainable manner, it will have an impact on other sectors like transportation (electric cars), buildings (heat pumps) and industry (industrial processes).

The evolution of the Belgian energy system will surely affect your energy costs. What are your considerations in this field?
The energy system costs – which include all investments in connection with production, distribution, transportation and energy consumption, as well as fuel costs and investments in energy efficiency – will rise immensely in all our scenarios. The reasons are the necessary investments in new technologies and individual sectors, such as the power plants that need to be replaced. The switch to electric cars, the insulation of buildings, etc. require big investments as well. 
In our reference scenario, the costs which are reflected in the GDP take the shape of an inverted U. After 2030, the share of these energy system costs in the GDP will decline again. In other, more politically driven scenarios, however, it will remain relatively stable even after 2030.
For 2050, we expect the reference scenario and the other scenarios to differ by 2 to 3 percentage points. All this is proof that even the energy shift has its price and requires investments. On the other hand, these investments will lead to more growth and employment. In the political scenarios, many more jobs will be created around 2030 than in the reference scenario.

What role will natural gas play in the future energy mix?
Belgium has decided to gradually phase out nuclear energy. The last nuclear power plants are scheduled to be taken offline between 2024 and 2025. Since our country's coal production is barely worth mentioning anymore, only two sources of energy remain: natural gas and renewables. Natural gas will play a critical role in the supply mix, in large part to maintain flexibility. In all scenarios, the mix is roughly fifty-fifty. In a dual system, natural gas will play the role of back-up in order to keep supply and demand in balance.
Power imports provide the third necessary pillar. If we increase the share of renewable energies that depend on the weather, we will also have to depend more on foreign sources in order to keep the network balanced, flexible and reliable. And the more this takes place at the European level, the more interesting this will be for all players.

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