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Belgium exempt from EU-wide 15% energy savings this winter

14:28 29/07/2022

European Union member states have agreed on a voluntary reduction of gas consumption by 15% by winter in order to compensate for a decrease in Russian imports - but Belgium has been granted an exemption.

The reduction will only become mandatory under certain conditions, but exceptions exist for countries that have limited interconnections or can demonstrate that their export capacity or liquefied gas infrastructure is used to redirect natural gas to other member states.

The second of those conditions applies to Belgium, due to its Zeebrugge gas terminal, which means that the country will be exempt from any reductions. 

Energy minister Tine Van der Straeten (Groen) said she is “positive” and “happy” with the EU agreement, as it takes into account the “very specific position” of Belgium.

Belgium only imports 5% of its gas from Russia, according to Van der Straeten, and imports a lot of gas from other sources, such as Norway and Great Britain, a large part of which is destined for other countries, such as Germany.

Van der Straeten said that Belgium “was not against a solidarity plan”, but that the country already helps other states through its interconnections.

Belgium did take issue with the mandatory nature of the European Commission's plan, as did other member states.

“If Belgium were obliged to reduce its consumption by 15%, it would have to export these volumes, but it has reached the limit of its export capacity,” a diplomatic source told L'Echo and De Tijd, explaining why Belgium asked for an exemption. 

Belgium as a major exporter to neighbouring countries 

Belgium is a major exporter of liquefied natural gas (LNG) due to the Zeebrugge terminal, and the current gas crisis has pushed its export volumes to the limits.

“Today, Belgium is able to help, for example, Germany, because we import two to three times more than Belgian consumption,” Van der Straeten said. 

Fluxys, the Belgian gas transmission and storage system operator, did not wish to comment on the political reasons for Belgium’s disapproval of the mandatory reduction plan. 

The operator did explain technical reasons, saying that since the beginning of the year and particularly since the war in Ukraine, gas flows through Belgium have been under a unique set of circumstances that differ from previous years. 

“We import very large quantities from the Zeebrugge area. These quantities are transported through our infrastructure either to Germany or to the Netherlands,” said spokesman Laurent Remy. 

“We are transporting to the Netherlands and Germany quantities that are five times greater than Belgian consumption.”

The large flow of gas for export has consequences for the capacity of the Belgian gas grid: “We are very, very close to the maximum capacity of our network, whether towards Germany or the Netherlands.”

The various operators who buy and sell gas via Belgium use Belgian storage capacities and are currently importing very large quantities. 

Because some of this gas is destined for the Belgian market, if Belgium were to reduce its own gas consumption by 15%, the gas not consumed by Belgium would have to be exported.

Fluxys compared the potential situation to that of a bathtub that fills up faster than it empties.

“On the one hand, you have the tap flowing from the Zeebrugge area and on the other hand, you have two exit points from the bathtub, namely Germany and the Netherlands,” said Remy.

“Once you have reached the maximum physical flow rate that can be released through these two holes, you can still reduce Belgian consumption. This will have the effect of raising the level in the bathtub, but you will not be releasing more gas through the two holes that have reached their maximum level.”

Reduction could have ripple effects in industry

Reducing gas consumption would also affect gas-intensive industries. 

“Natural gas was seen as an energy vector for the energy transition. It is an energy carrier which, per unit of energy, emits less CO2,” Francesco Contino, professor at UCLouvain and specialist in energy issues, told RTBF.

Just as many Belgian households have switched from oil to gas heating, companies have also opted for natural gas to move away from fossil fuels such as coal, increasing demand for gas in Belgium.

“This means that additional demand that we would like to reduce is quite complex to cover,” Contino said. 

Reducing gas consumption by around 15% would bring the risk of scaling back heavy industrial activity, and choices would have to be made as to which industries are prioritised. 

“The European regulation wants to preserve or maintain gas support for residential use, meaning ordinary citizens will continue to receive gas and will not be directly impacted,” said Contino.

“It is mainly at the industrial and economic level that there will be an impact. Residential consumption is only a fraction of total consumption – barely a third or a quarter. So before we can cut residential consumption, we will cut many other things.”

Written by Helen Lyons