Belgian Offshore Days

Keynote speech Belgian Offshore Days

Ladies and gentlemen,

At the end of November, I visited the offshore wind farm Seamade in the Belgian North Sea. I watched the construction of the last wind turbines in the first offshore zone.

Two things struck me. First: the passion and expertise of our Belgian builders. Second: the fact that in only ten years’ time, these wind turbines are 3 times more powerful than the first ones constructed.

It all started with an ambition set by policy makers, more than ten years ago, and pioneers to make this ambition a reality. Today, Belgium is number four worldwide in production of offshore wind and a global leader in this technology. We can proudly say that our wind farms are our national pride, just like beer, chocolate and ‘Belgian’ fries.

This is not the end, but the continuation of what I believe is a Belgian success story that still holds a lot of untapped potential. The North Sea has a renewable energy capacity of about 300GW. 10 years ago, we dreamt about installing a wind farm in the North Sea. Today, we dream about transforming our North Sea into one big, sustainable power plant. 

How will we do this?

First, this government is committed to doubling our installed capacity to 4GW, and look for additional capacity, in our waters and beyond. My team is working hard to see how we can accelerate this process. Together with Minister Van Quickenborne, I have launched geophysical and geotechnical field studies in the Princess Elisabeth zone. By bundling the field research necessary to obtain permits, we put less burden on project developers, as they do not have to carry out the studies themselves. This means we can move faster and that the timing for the tenders and the construction of the second offshore wind park is on schedule and could possibly accelerate.

Second, we need to form partnerships with our neighboring countries and those around the North Sea. This we can do by building submarine interconnections, for instance. Little over a month ago, Belgium has signed a memorandum of understanding with Denmark for a hybrid interconnection, for example. In 2019, Belgium successfully concluded the development of the first electricity interconnector link with the UK, called Nemo. We continue to explore possibilities with several countries around the North Sea.

Furthermore, as part of the Belgian post-covid recovery plans, we will create an energy island in the North Sea. This island will serve as an energy hub, opening up a whole range of different possibilities: from linking electricity interconnectors with other countries, such as the envisaged interconnectors with Denmark or the UK to being a production hub of green hydrogen.

Ladies and gentlemen,

2020 was an absolute record year for offshore wind production. Only last week, we broke yet another wind record. Our wind turbines produced 4 GW, or the equivalent of 4 nuclear power plants. The offshore wind energy sector produces above expectations, thanks to its passion and expertise.

Unfortunately, our energy infrastructure does not always allow us to fully benefit of these advantageous weather conditions. In April last year, wind turbines had to be shut down due to the oversupply of electricity on the net. Last week, we partially saw the same situation repeating itself.

Shutting down wind turbines when the wind is blowing, is of course the world upside down.

We do not have a legislation that foresees priority injection on the net for renewables, and Belgian nuclear reactors do not have load-following capabilities. And the more wind farms we have, the more wind energy we will produce, and the more frequent this scenario is likely to repeat itself. So, what we need is flexibility, in Winter as well as in Summer, to prevent this situation from happening again.

This is where the Capacity Remuneration Mechanism or CRM comes into play. Through an auction system, the government will top up the missing money for energy production companies to invest in energy capacity – this, at the lowest possible price per unit. In doing so, we safeguard our energy supply, we make sure the energy bill for citizens and companies does not go through the roof, and we replace our static nuclear capacities by dynamic, flexible alternatives. Our TSO estimates that there are so many projects ready to participate in the CRM that we have three times the capacity needed. I have seen this also first hand when working as an energy lawyer. A variety of projects ready to be rolled out were brought to my attention: demand management, batteries, flexible storage, and more.

In addition to flexibility on the net, we also need to reinforce our infrastructure. If we increase the capacity of offshore wind, we need to make sure it gets to shore, to companies and consumers’ homes. We therefore need to advance our work on the development of new high voltage power lines.

This is, however, easier said than done. People potentially impacted by the construction of those power lines are worried about the consequences. I fully understand this and empathise. Public infrastructure is not a mere technical matter for engineers. It has a very important social component. It will always be a delicate balancing act to find the most appropriate solution – a solution that allows us to move forward, while minimizing the social impact.

We need to build bridges between infrastructure projects and people. This is our common responsibility.

Because ladies and gentlemen, let’s not lose track of why we are putting all our time and efforts into creating the regulatory framework and physical infrastructure to optimize the development and use of renewable energy sources.

We are experiencing the hottest year on record in Belgium, Europe and worldwide. This increase needs to stop. To reduce greenhouses gasses by 55% in 2030 and in order to become the first climate neutral continent by 2050, our energy system needs to transition from fossil fuels to clean energy.

Much of the energy transition will focus on electrification. Renewable energy is the most effective and readily available solution for reversing the trend of rising CO² emissions. As I said in the beginning, in ten years, a lot can happen. It was the time needed to make wind turbines three times more efficient. Well, ten years is exactly the amount of time we have to reduce our CO² emissions by 55%.

In addition, we are living in the biggest recession since the Second World War as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. And remember what happened in 1945, at the end of the second World War. People had hope and believed in a better future. In Europe, this was the moment we built infrastructure such as harbors, airports, highways, electricity and gas networks. This public spending is the bedrock on which we have built a prosperous society and we continue to reap the benefits of it.

In 1951, in the wake of the Second World War, a crucial decision was made: the creation of the European Coal and Steel community. Belgium was one of the six founding countries. This cooperation was considered as nothing less than a real peace treaty.

What happened in 1951, is also happening today. Yet again, energy is serving as catalyst for change and cooperation: In 1951 with coal and steel. In 2020 with the Green Deal.

The big difference with the past is that the battlefield is now laying in front of us. It is even more dangerous and global: it is climate change. Once more energy will play the leading role in overcoming this challenge.

With the Green Deal, we are living a paradigm shift from a fossil driven energy to a technology driven one. Clean and affordable.

While our doctors and health workers battle the pandemic, it’s my and our responsibility to lay out the framework for a green recovery. A green recovery is the vaccine for our economy.

In Belgium the wind industry creates 1 billion euros of added value per annum, a better balance of foreign trade and a positive effect on state finances.

In terms of employment, nearly 16 000 jobs will be created between 2010 and 2030 through the development, construction, maintenance and dismantling of wind farms and their electrical infrastructure.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I’ve mentioned it here several times: Belgium is a land of pioneers. I see this not only in the world of offshore wind farms, but also in the development of the necessary infrastructure for green hydrogen, for instance. As you know, the energy transition is not based on green electrons only. Green molecules will be part of the deal too. Hydrogen will play a crucial role in decarbonizing energy intensive sectors. 

There are a lot of exciting projects in the pipeline, I am sure many of you have such projects lined up, so that is why I try to make my policy as boring and predictable as possible. The most important thing that I, as a policy maker, can offer companies, is clarity. Clarity on where we’re heading. Because, to quote Seneca: “If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable.”

You can count on me, and I hope I can count on you - on your passion, expertise and eagerness to pioneer.

I thank you for your attention.