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Wallonia’s companies are working together in the transition to a greener, more circular economy

05:00 03/02/2021

The transition to environmental sustainability means companies need to be smart about how they use resources. “We are moving into a circular economy, where we create economic value for companies while decreasing the amount of primary materials entering the production system,” says Véronique Graff, managing director of GreenWin, an organisation devoted to environmentally sustainable chemistry, materials and construction in Wallonia.

The same goes for energy, where there is a shift to more efficient processes and cleaner energy sources. “Wallonia is a small region with high energy consumption, so we face a significant challenge when it comes to renewable energy,” says Cédric Brüll, director of Tweed, which is devoted to sustainable energy. “But we are also working on energy efficiency, and when it comes to industry we have had quite good results.”

GreenWin and Tweed are, respectively, innovation and business clusters, organisations set up by the Walloon government and industry to help business address economic challenges. They bring together companies and experts from the region’s universities and research centres, making connections and encouraging the sharing of knowledge, skills and equipment. The clusters help their networks develop projects involving new technologies and economic models, from the initial conception, through funding to their implementation. They also support their sectors with tools such as reports and studies on specific issues, and they host conferences and organise trade missions overseas.

Wallonia’s energy transition began with an agreement in 2003 that provided incentives for energy-intensive industries to become more efficient. These accords de branche have supported major changes in industrial processes. “For example, all the paper pulp industries have built the co-generation of energy into their processes,” Brüll explains.

They have also helped an energy service industry develop in Wallonia. “One of our assets is that we have great engineering companies, both small companies that can help industry here become more energy-efficient, but also big companies such as Tractebel, TPF and John Cockerill that have the strength to carry out energy-efficiency projects all over the world.”

Increasing the use of renewable energy has been more challenging. Putting solar panels on a factory roof will help a little, but more sophisticated approaches are required to create a deeper change. One way Tweed addresses this is by creating working groups to look at specific sectors. “For example, we’ve brought together hospitals and energy providers, and have created some exciting projects involving solar panels in hospital parking lots that can be combined with electromobility.”

A particularly hot topic is the creation of energy communities, in which consumers come together to share a local renewable energy source. “When people consume solar or wind power directly, that reduces the cost of the grid and avoids the problem of ‘not in my back yard’,” Brüll says. Part of the attraction is price, but people are also drawn in by being independent and able to control their power supply.

Tweed’s E-Cloud project is working on micro-grids so that companies in the same industrial zone can invest in and share local renewable energy production and storage. A specific test case is MeryGrid, which brings together three smaller companies on the Mery industrial estate in Esneux, Liège province, to share solar and hydroelectric power and to develop a storage capability.

One of the keys to this kind of project is not the energy source but digital technologies that allow supply and demand to be monitored and managed in a sophisticated way. “We already have some companies with good knowledge of ‘smart grids’ at the European level,” says Brüll, citing n-Side, Opinum and Dapesco as examples. Meanwhile, the challenge of storing energy is being addressed by companies such as CE+T Energrid.

Wallonia is also seeing whole new sectors emerge, such as hydrogen energy. “Two or three years ago, apart from a couple of R&D projects, no one here was working on hydrogen energy, but now we have industrial partners who are investing in this area.”

Among them is John Cockerill, which created a hydrogen business in 2018 and, with Chinese partner Suzhou Jingli Hydrogen Production Equipment, recently won a contract to provide 85 zero-emission buses to the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. A project is also under way to equip Liège Airport with hydrogen-powered vehicles.

Meanwhile, WallonHy, one of the R&D projects Tweed helped create, has spun off a company called Hyflux, which will develop a more efficient method of hydrogen energy production.

GreenWin has also found that digital technologies play an important part in the transition to a greener industry. “Digital technologies allow companies to fine-tune their production lines, and therefore drastically reduce their energy consumption and use of primary materials,” Graff says. But they can also have an impact in the construction sector, for example by recording the type and location of materials used in a structure. “This means that, for the whole lifespan of the building, you can be very precise when it comes to renovation and the recycling of materials from the building.”

Developing new construction materials and methods is also important. GreenWin’s Atisol project, for example, has produced a plant-based insulation material that is completely recyclable. “This fits the idea of the circular economy, but it is also easy to use, and that’s very important for the construction sector,” Graff says.

Another project, called Frensis, set out to develop windows that combined thin, highly insulating glass with a highly insulating frame, producing a much higher than normal energy efficiency. While the combination proved hard to achieve, the vacuum double glazing developed in the project demonstrated significant potential on its own. “So one door closes, and another opens.” This has since been brought to the market by AGC Glass, in particular for use with existing frames. The company has also started a glass replacement service for building renovation projects, a shift away from simply selling products that is another facet of the circular economy.

For the future, one of the biggest challenges is to find ways of capturing carbon dioxide (CO2), the principal gas involved in climate change. This is something GreenWin is pursuing as a member of CO2 Value Europe, an international project that brings together large CO2 emitters to develop and test new approaches to carbon capture.

“In Wallonia, we are working on systems for the mineralisation of CO2, which will allow us to re-use it in construction materials,” Graff says. “This is very ambitious, but the idea is to have a direct impact on climate change. Being able to work collectively on that will make all the difference.”

Solar energy storage put to the test

Making the most of solar power is not simply a matter of putting up as many solar panels as possible. As the size of an installation grows, serious thought needs to go into how the energy produced will be managed, stored and used. This is where the Miris project, costing around €10 million, comes in. Unveiled by the technology group John Cockerill (then called CMI) in 2018, Miris is made up of 6,500 solar panels, covering 10,000 square metres on top of John Cockerill’s industrial halls in Seraing. These panels have a peak production capacity of 2MW, enough to power 500-600 households for a year.

Miris has been testing four different battery technologies – lithium-ion, two kinds of flow battery and a sodium-sulphur battery – and an energy management system developed by John Cockerill and the University of Liège. The aim has been to characterise how they perform in real-world conditions.

“The important difference with Miris is that we are working with industrial-scale batteries,” says Régis Frankard, president of John Cockerill Energy Storage. “In contrast to a demonstrator, where we might test a single cell or a battery module, it’s really the complete system.” The total battery capacity is 5.4MWh. The knowledge gained from Miris will inform how John Cockerill develops systems for its clients, such as micro-grids for establishing energy communities. “Miris gives us the capacity to disconnect from the network and test applications off-grid, so we can show our clients how the solutions we propose will perform.”

Wallonia in transition

Here are a few of the many enterprises contributing to the region going green:

AMB Ecosteryl processes medical waste with methods that have a low impact on the environment, recycling 90% of the material produced.

Belvas makes chocolate with green credentials, from the organic, fair-trade ingredients to solar power and heat recovery system that makes its workshop 50% self-sufficient in energy.

Coretec is a consultancy specialising in the study, implementation, optimisation and supervision of energy solutions.

Cuisine Sauvage promotes edible plants with foraging walks, cooking classes and gourmet tours.

Enersol helps companies and individuals through energy transition, reducing their consumption and introducing renewable energy and storage capabilities.

Opinum integrates sensors and smart data processing to optimise the energy and environmental performance of buildings.

Plastic Pool Europe offers an industrial-scale plastic grinding service, converting hard plastics such as crates into feedstock for recycling.

Protelux specialises in processing deep-frying oil and other waste materials from cooking and food preparation.

SEDE Benelux treats farming waste, composting organic waste and processing water and mud, often though innovative alliances with other industries.

This article first appeared in the Wab (Wallonia and Brussels) magazine

Wallonia’s companies are working together in the transition to a greener, more circular economy


Written by Ian Mundell