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Green giants: Wallonia's energy industry is reinventing itself

11:06 25/06/2017
Region is working to be a world leader in renewable power

Once a heavy industry powerhouse full of heavily polluting steel plants and coal slag heaps, Wallonia is fast developing a renewable energy sector with world-class companies reaping market share in new technologies. Such success is prompting hopes for more ambitious targets.

Smart grid technology, wind turbine maintenance, biomass, electric cars and energy-efficient swimming pools are just some of the fields in which the region has developed expertise in recent years, and it’s paying off in terms of meeting EU targets.

By 2020, the bloc as a whole has pledged to generate 20% of its energy from renewable sources. Each member state, or in Belgium’s case region (the regions have competence for environment and energy), has its own target.

Cedric Brüll, director of the Walloon government’s renewable energy cluster, Tweed, says the region is already at between 10 and 11%, putting it firmly on track to meet its 13% target for 2020. In terms of terawatt hours, annual production is 13 TW compared with just 6 TW 10 years ago.

There have been lulls along the way. In 2014, after a boom in photovoltaic panels thanks to generous government subsidies, the solar industry growth eased off as the government pulled back on its grants.

Brüll says that with these changes he expects more sustainable growth. “Now we are seeing that the cost of panels is lower and it’s competitive. The subsidies are now more related to the market.” For wind turbines, localised opposition has also caused a levelling off as there are fewer spaces where residents are not ready to protest against installations. But Brüll is again confident of an upswing.

In Wallonia, the wind industry is setting up co-operative systems where groups of individuals can invest in a wind farm and enjoy its benefits. “I think the mentality will change as a result of this, and that the potential for wind energy is great.” He adds that internationally, the wind sector is “totally booming”, notably in countries like the US and China, and that the technology is becoming competitive with traditional fossil fuel energies such as oil and gas. “The market is very ready,” says Brüll.

The growth in the region’s competence in renewables has been carefully managed, with the government carrying out surveys to see where expertise truly lies. “We are not good all along the value chain,” he says, “but in wind power, for example, we are good at software, monitoring and optimisation.”

For the smart grid – an EU-wide electricity network that aims to smooth out peaks and troughs in renewables production, making overall production reliable – the region is also able to offer a high degree of expertise. “When it comes to ICT solutions, we have a lot of companies that are very strong.”

Integrating electric vehicles is an important element in reducing pollution through particulate matter, and it’s a step that the region is ready for. N-SIDE (see below) is busy providing ICT solutions to ensure optimisation of electric car fleets.

Managing director Olivier Devolder says the market is on its way up. “We already see it growing quite quickly. More and more companies are installing charging points, and we will see a big shift in the next two to three years. Charging the vehicle when electricity is green and cheap will become more and more important and that is what our solution facilitates.”

Aside from the obvious proximity to regulators in Brussels who are pushing the renewables market, Brüll attributes the strong growth in the region’s green industry to its research capabilities, particularly in the academic sector. “We have been investing a lot in renewable projects with universities in this field.” One example is the plan to cut energy use in the steel industry by 15%, he explains. “We have engineering companies searching for solutions such as insulation. The government is helping these companies to finance studies, and with the results they will invest in these technologies.”

Looking ahead, Brüll believes the region is ready to produce yet more of its energy from renewable sources. “To be honest, we need more ambitious targets,” he says, adding that the European Commission is now looking at developing 2030 targets. But nothing is on the table just yet.

A big impetus for renewables will be the legally required phase-out of Belgium’s nuclear power stations. “We have talks at the federal level about an energy transition pact. We have to find a plan to make the phase-out viable.”

The question is which forms of energy will replace nuclear power, which made up more than a third of energy output in 2016, according to the World Nuclear Association. "Renewables will be the ones because they are the most competitive,” says Brüll.

While the region is still strong in certain heavy industry such as steel and glass, Brüll says that even there, renewables have a strong role to play in their energy use; for example, fitting turbines at a plant or photovoltaic panels on the roof. “What we are seeing right now is that we are really in the middle of an energy revolution. I am very optimistic.”

Keeping the turbines turning

When a Walloon company was asked by a Spanish firm to fix three gear boxes, it had no idea that they belonged to wind turbines. Three years later, Maintenance Partners Belgium is a European leader in the industry, not only in repairs but also in the crucial field of predictive maintenance. “We didn’t know where these gearboxes came from until we went to visit the company,” says business development director Jean-Louis Counet. “We then did a market study and saw that the business could fit very well with our strategy.”

The company embarked on a research and development programme, supported by the
regional government and in conjunction with the universities of Liège and Mons. Its goal was to find out as much as possible about the original equipment. By examining factors such as weather and the power curve, and with their knowledge of the individual turbines, the researchers found that they could develop accurate forecasts as frequently as every 15 minutes or over a period of three days.

“We found that we could have a good idea of the behaviour of the turbines, better even than the original equipment manufacturers themselves. We could give operators a good idea of what would happen to their machine and when they would see a failure,” says Counet. “As soon as you see a deviation in output, we drill down into the data to find the cause of the problem. The point is to know then why there is such a problem.”

The company can also provide palliative maintenance to extend the lifetime of a turbine. As renewables make up a larger percentage of the EU’s total consumption, it becomes ever more important to make them reliable – an issue that has frequently been used by opponents against such technologies. The market for renewables is also changing.

Counet says many manufacturers have been acquired, there has been a reduction in revenues for wind farms, and the grid operators are increasingly in control. Companies like Maintenance Partners will be essential to continued profitability. “If we can see what will happen and make predictions, owners will have a better idea of what their costs will be. I think the changes in the market conditions will be more interesting for us.”

The power of maths

Integrating and optimising renewables across the 28 member states of the EU is as complex as it sounds, but it’s also necessary if they are to be seriously taken up. While opponents say fluctuations in production put a question mark over its reliability, one solution is the European Smart Grid – an EU-wide energy network.

The intelligence powering the grid’s development is provided by N-SIDE. The dream scenario is that when renewable energy production peaks in one area – perhaps in solar energy due to a heatwave in the South – this would smooth out troughs elsewhere, say, when winds are calm in the North Sea and the turbines cannot produce enough. The result should be smooth and reliable production across the EU to rival traditional fuels such as fossil fuels and nuclear.

Unlocking the enormous value of the smart grid requires detailed insight into the fluctuations. N-SIDE, essentially a software company, is producing endless algorithms based on artificial intelligence and maths to help energy providers and grid operators make the best decisions and to best adapt to the introduction of renewables.

Taking into account several factors, including the weather, historical prices and import and export prices, N-SIDE, based in Louvain-la-Neuve, can provide the tools to make crucial forecasts for energy traders, allowing them to leverage prices.

“If you want to succeed in the energy transition you have to be smart. That is what we want to add: smartness,” says N-SIDE director Olivier Devolder. And as renewable energy sources increase, the calculations get more complex. “The markets are growing and more and more electricity is being traded on the market,” says Devolder. “The electricity markets are growing with more and more European integration. Our smart grid solution facilitates trading across Europe while managing the network challenges in the smartest way. We always need to be innovative.”

For energy markets, N-SIDE works in three main areas: assisting the market operators who manage the grid; providing information to energy industrial partners who trade electricity; and on centralised distributed energy systems, local networks where consumption happens at the moment of production, such as via photovoltaic panels or electric vehicle charging networks.

N-SIDE’s primary goal is to use its expertise in software to provide its consumers with savings. “We are not only a software company; we provide the services to ensure our customers capture maximum value and savings,” explains Devolder. Its expertise is also a boon for EU regulators, whose target is for the bloc to produce 20% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020.

For N-SIDE, regulatory developments are clearly on its side, along with its relationships with major research institutes, allowing it to provide the most up-tothe- minute solutions. In the last two years, the company has doubled in size and now generates revenues of €5 million, about 70% of which comes from outside Belgium. In the next five years, its plan is to increase in size by 200%.

Making renewable beautiful

In the early days of a new product, how it looks is rarely the priority. But a Walloon company is taking the latest developments in pellet stoves technology and turning these once rather functional items into energy-efficient design pieces.

With pellets sourced from sustainable forestry and condensed in a way that gives off the lowest possible particulate matter pollution (something that’s a problem in traditional stoves), Stûv, headquartered near Namur, provides a reliable, storable source of renewable energy.

The technology behind the stoves (pictured) has been developed with research centres in the region and funded in part by local government. With scientists, Stûv has created pellets that are shaped like a flower, or the motor of a Boeing 787, giving a high flame and high combustion.

The stoves are designed to provide for easy loading of the pellets and they rotate 45 degrees from left to right. The company was the recent winner of the Red Dot Award for product design in Germany.

Marketing manager Thomas Duquesne explains that pellet stoves have traditionally had a very harsh, cold flame and have fallen short when it comes to design of the unit. “This is one of the first products that combines interest in renewable energy with a product that you’d like to have in your living room.”

For the future, the company has big plans, and wants to develop central heating and hot water systems. “A big part of energy use comes from its conversion to hot water,” says Duquesne. “With one fire each day, you could have all the comfort of central heating. We want to be a first-level actor in Europe and eventually in the US.”

Stûv is also targeting zero-emission pellets to make its offer even more attractive. But always with a focus on product design. With zero emissions you have all the arguments you need for energy efficiency,” says Duquesne. “And there’s also what you generate in terms of wellness by looking at this beautiful flame.”

Written by Emma Portier Davis