Belgian year ahead baseload power in the wholesale market is now more than 14 euro per MWh more expensive than German power. In the spot markets, prices since the beginning of this year have on average been 6,72 euro per MWh more expensive in Belgium compared to Germany. Two years ago the German price was still more expensive than power in Belgium. But then German power started to drop more rapidly. I see two main reasons for these cheap wholesale prices in Germany. First of all, the rapid expansion of renewable electricity in Germany has had an undisputed bearish effect on prices. On top of that, Germany is producing much more electricity from coal than Belgium. And as coal prices have declined, this has helped to push down wholesale power prices in Germany even further.
In the last three years, wholesale electricity prices across Europe (UK being the most notable exception) have generally been falling. Simple supply and demand economics are responsible for that. With pockets full of cash due to the windfall profits of high wholesale prices in the 2005 – 2008 period and inspired by reports of a looming supply shortage, European energy companies engaged in an intensive investment campaign in new production capacity. The Netherlands, for example, has expanded its power production capacity by 8.846 MW in the 2009 to 2014 period, and most of that is conventional gas-fired and even coal-fired capacity (Source: Tennet). The supply capacity boom was further enhanced by the fact that renewable energy expanded much more rapidly than anyone had ever expected, specifically in Germany. This unexpectedly rapid expansion was provoked by generous subsidies and solidified by rapidly dropping technology costs. At the same time, the economic crisis and successful climate policies caused an electricity demand decline rather than the expected increase. The result is a global European market of overcapacity for power production.
The stupefying thing, as far as Belgium is concerned, is that amid all this excess supply it has managed to put itself in the position of a country with a supply shortage. This and only this is the explanation for the price rift between Belgium and its surrounding countries. The spread between Belgian and German wholesale prices widened recently due to the outage of two nuclear power stations in Belgium on security concerns. But this might just give policymakers a too easy excuse for the current situation. In the past years, Belgian power production capacity has dropped. It is clear that Belgian energy policy has failed to create the conditions for attracting investments in capacity expansion. Germany has not failed in achieving that. And that’s why the wholesale prices in Germany are lower.
The main reason for this failure of Belgian energy policymaking has an institutional character. I don’t want to tire foreign readers of this article with the quagmires of Belgian politics, but still, the complexity of its institutions has contributed a lot to this policy failure. In the last decade, Belgium has had many different energy ministers from many different parties. Energy policy tends to be a heavily colored by ideology, so all these changes in ministers have caused multiple turnarounds and flip-flops. On top of that, in Belgium with its complicated structure, the responsibility for energy policy is spread over the federal and regional decision-making level. Even if the federal minister seems to have most impact on security of supply issues, important aspects such as renewable support mechanisms or authorization procedures are decided by their Flemish, Walloon and Brussels counterparts (yes, city-region Brussels has a separate energy policy). This institutional framework isn’t exactly beneficial for the creation of the consistent policy that you need to attract investments in energy infrastructure which are typically high capital cost investments with extended realization periods. Examples of these policy failures are:
- Belgian energy policymakers have often focused on fighting highly symbolic battles with incumbent supplier and producer Electrabel (now part of the GdF-Suez group). Despite the rhetoric, it took them a very long time to really do something about Electrabel’s dominant position, discouraging alternative suppliers to invest in Belgium.
- Belgium launched a nuclear phase-out policy and then renegotiated it, and renegotiated it and renegotiated it. This obviously created a lot of uncertainty and refrained energy companies from investing in large-scale fossil fuel-fired power production in Belgium.
- Belgium (i.e. the Flemish, Walloon and Brussels’ regions) launched ambitious, generous support schemes for renewable but then rapidly withdrew them as the cost of this for the end consumer became clear.
- Politicians kept dreaming about energy independence and only realized the importance of increasing cross-border capacity when the security problems with the two plants surfaced. For example, there still is no cross-border capacity with Germany, it is only planned to be operational in 2019. This is obviously especially painful at this moment when German wholesale power is so much cheaper.
At the end of this month, the Belgians go to cast votes not only for their European representatives but also for their federal and regional parliaments. Many are hopeful that after these elections, having a few years in a row without new elections will create the sort of stable political climate necessary to put en route necessary reforms. Let’s hope we can also see the sort of reforms of energy policy necessary to normalize energy pricing. Now that investment costs in renewable energy have dropped a lot, it should be carefully considered whether some extra support for renewable couldn’t be a cheap and climate-friendly part of the solution. And there is no doubt that in a context of supply shortage with excess supply capacities in neighboring countries, rapid investment in cross-border capacity is an inevitable option. With the current price differential between Belgian and German power in view, we highly recommend to speed up the Alegro project that connects both markets. Do we really need five more years to build that line? Supporting gas-fired power stations with capacity payments is a bad idea. It will cause extra cost as these subsidies find their way to the end consumers’ bills. And with their high marginal costs, I can’t see how these gas-fired MWh’s will reduce the commodity price.
With the price rift peaking, industry representatives were very rapid to complain about the disadvantage it creates for Belgian companies competing with German companies. We obviously have to highlight here that the wholesale power price is only part of the overall electricity bills. On top of that, a consumer pays a retail margin to its supplier, but these margins are minimal in both countries, so they are not creating much difference. The main difference can be found in the grid fees and taxes. These are much higher in Germany than in Belgium, but energy-intensive consumers can benefit from large reductions on these high grid fees and taxes. The situation is therefore as follows. If you’re a German company for whom electricity cost is more than 14% of its added value and with more than 7.000 hours of load duration, you will pay almost nothing for grid fees and taxes. But many German companies that don’t meet only one or none of these criteria pay a lot more for consuming power than any Belgian company. Nevertheless, coming on top of important differences in grid fees and taxes, large price differentials in wholesale prices are creating unnecessary competitive disadvantages within Europe. However, we have to consider that today’s winners may be tomorrow’s winners. Belgian industry representatives pleaded for a long time to increase cross-border capacity on the French border and not on the Dutch and/or German borders. This wrong choice of border is now contributing to the competitiveness problem.