VITO/EnergyVille develops strategies for the ‘defossilisation’ of our transport and the heating of our buildings

Belgium must reduce the emissions of sectors not covered by the European Emissions Trading System, which account for more than half of our greenhouse gas emissions, by more than one third by 2030. This will require: climate-friendly mobility, an alternative to large-scale natural gas heating systems and sustainability improvements in sectors such as agriculture and waste management. At VITO/EnergyVille we are researching and assessing all measures that can support this effort. We are doing this by using a systemic approach. And from different perspectives: technological, economic and sociological.

Based on the public discourse about climate change, and specifically the debate about how Belgium and Flanders can achieve their objectives, it seems to be simply a matter of identifying a low-carbon electricity source. Partly thanks to plans to phase out nuclear power, the energy transition debate has boiled down in recent years to a discussion about where we should obtain our electricity.

That is a shame of course because, in reality, CO2 emissions from electricity production make up less than twenty per cent of national emissions in Belgium. And yes, this is in part due to the significant contribution of nuclear energy towards the energy mix (even if, in the hypothetical case of one hundred per cent fossil fuel power plants, emissions would still be less than fifty per cent). On top of this, electricity generation forms part of the European Emissions Trading System, or ETS, along with other energy-intensive sectors such as the steel, cement, petrochemical and aviation industries within Europe. The emissions of this ETS sector are regulated at European level, via emission limits that are constantly being lowered. This sector generates forty per cent of European CO2 emissions.

35 per cent reduction by 2030

The non-ETS sector includes the transport industry (which still draws largely on fossil fuels), heating systems in homes and buildings (natural gas!), agriculture and waste management. These sectors are therefore responsible for the largest share of greenhouse gas emissions, despite their often neglected role in the media and public debate. They also encompass sub-sectors over which Belgium and Flanders have direct control. Indeed, Europe has tasked national and regional authorities with curbing and reducing emissions in these sectors via the Paris climate agreement and a number of European directives. And by more than just a bit: Belgium needs to achieve a 35 per cent reduction in the emissions of its non-ETS sector by 2030 compared to the reference year 2005.

At VITO/EnergyVille, we take the challenges facing the non-ETS sectors seriously. Our status as a knowledge organisation and technology supplier obliges us to do so. And thanks to our long-standing and broad expertise, we are extremely thorough. We focus not on individual sectors, measures or scenarios but on the system as a whole. An important part of our approach is to look at things from not just a technological but also an economic and sociological perspective. We can do this thanks to VITO/EnergyVille’s highly diverse workforce, with specialists ranging from exact scientists to economists and sociologists to architects. This approach also allows better understanding of the value and potential of technologies. After all, it would not be the first promising technology to fail because it did not find its way onto the market.

The success of the energy transition depends on enough people being willing to participate and invest in it. This means that measures that are not only climate-friendly but also offer a higher level of user comfort have a better chance of succeeding. Finally, the numbers also need to add up in financial terms for the various authorities. Investments, subsidies and other support measures always need to be tested in a broad macroeconomic context.

Emphasis on defossilisation

In terms of the transition of non-ETS sectors, the emphasis lies firmly on ‘defossilisation’: drastically reducing our dependence on fossil fuels and resources. Most heating systems in Belgium are still largely fuelled by natural gas imported from abroad. Like the Netherlands, we need to gradually move away from gas. The fact that current imports have a negative impact on our trade balance and thus also on our economic growth is a further incentive. A number of fully fledged alternatives are available for heating such as deep and shallow geothermal energy, residual heat from industry, electric heat pumps and so on. And let’s not forget insulation: making our homes and buildings more energy efficient reduces the need for heating.

At VITO/EnergyVille we are exploring not just the visible benefits of these alternatives, such as markedly lower emissions and less dependence on imported gas, but also the indirect, sometimes even hidden, positive effects. Of course the same applies to the downsides. Take the example of a district heating network powered by residual heat from industry, as in the port of Antwerp. The installation of this type of heating network requires major infrastructure works, and if there's one thing people don’t like, it’s road closures that last for weeks or months. So the benefits of this type of network must be clear and substantial, including for end users. One example is low, capped, energy prices. Large-scale infrastructure works also create local jobs, therefore boosting the economy. Another example is double glazing, which has proven very successful mainly because people see quick and marked returns in their wallets as well as a rise in home comfort levels. At VITO/EnergyVille we combine all these aspects to produce a complete vision for long-term measures and policy actions.

Making life easier for end users

The transition, particularly in the non-ETS sector, which is so close to the end user, will not happen if people associate it with loss of comfort. People need to feel that their daily lives are being enhanced. Clever marketing can certainly help. Take, for example, Tesla’s marketing of its electric cars as ‘the latest new thing’. People are willing to pay more if they know they are driving around with the latest technology. New business models can also help. Look at companies, and now also households, that no longer purchase electricity and pay per kilowatt hour consumed, but instead sign up to a complete energy service. This means they no longer need to bother with things like broken lightbulbs or new meters that need to be installed. In other words, their lives are made easier. Such services are becoming attractive to more and more end users, who are then caught up in the flow of the energy transition – sometimes without immediately realising it.

The transformation of those other ‘guzzlers’ of fossil fuels, the passenger transport and goods transport sectors, also poses a significant challenge. At VITO/EnergyVille we firmly believe in the future of the electric car. Admittedly, battery storage could be much better and alternatives still need to be found for what are referred to as ‘conflict materials’, and we are investing considerable effort in research in this area. The huge potential of the electric car lies in the high energy efficiency of the electric engine, namely over ninety per cent compared to a maximum of thirty per cent for combustion engines. What’s more, energy is also recovered during braking. This high efficiency means that we expect much more from the electric car, despite the fact that its battery makes it heavier, than from the hydrogen car, which is powered by a combustion engine. We are also aware, of course, that the intensive electrification of vehicles will drive up power consumption. That’s something we take into account in our models, which brings us back to the ETS sector.

Different levels

The electrification of passenger transport also provides a good example of the impact different policy levels can have on the success of the energy transition and the speed at which it is rolled out. For example, car manufacturers are constantly faced with more and more stringent European and national standards, forcing them to bring ever cleaner vehicles onto the market. But, of course, for electric vehicles you also need an extensive and dense charging infrastructure network instead of filling stations. Regional and local authorities are primarily responsible for taking action in this area. At VITO/EnergyVille we are examining how the various administrative and policy levels impact each other.

Heavy goods transport is another story. In this sector we envision a central future role for synthetic fuels produced using products such as CO2 from industrial flue gases. Our systemic approach shows that this technology can succeed and become financially viable if it is properly integrated into a broader industrial setting.

The benefit of long-term objectives

The main aim of defossilisation is to reduce our CO2 emissions. The extent to which we achieve this is important and even determines which technologies we can use to this end. A modest carbon reduction of 10 to 20 per cent demands a different approach to a drastic reduction of 80 to 90 per cent. It is not a case of simply using the same technology and then scaling it up. That’s why it is so important that we know well in advance what we need or want to aim for. This is precisely why the European long-term objectives are so useful.

We don’t just need to reduce our carbon emissions. We can also try to lower the surplus of CO2 in the atmosphere that is driving climate change. We can do this by planting trees, but also by removing CO2 directly from the atmosphere. Ten years ago this idea was still considered outrageous. However, we now largely recognise the benefits. ‘Capturing’ CO2 in the atmosphere offers much higher flexibility since you are not dependent on the output of an industrial plant. The problem is also simpler. The only relevant question is: how do I remove a tonne of CO2 from the atmosphere as cheaply as possible? By contrast, the question for industrial facilities is: how do I remove as much CO2 as possible from the airflow formed by flue gases?

But the big question remains what then happens to the carbon dioxide. Does it go into the ground, for example in an aquifer or an abandoned gas field or oil field? Or is it valorised in fuels and materials? These are questions that VITO/EnergyVille is exploring from both a technological and a socioeconomic point of view. It goes to show that, regardless of sector (ETS or non-ETS), the energy transition is always a work in progress.