Is the Belgian energy market ready for residential VPP’s?

Exciting new business models are on the horizon, with the Belgian rollout of residential smart meters scheduled for January 2019. “Australian examples show that residential Virtual Power Plants can contribute to grid stability and security of supply, while making an interesting business case”, says Ilse Jansseune, business consultant utilities at Trilations. Are the Belgian energy players ready?

The Virtual Power Plant (VPP) is not a new concept. Ilse Jansseune: “A VPP aggregates many smaller decentralized energy resources (DERs) — be it solar, wind or storage – across several locations or households. By using smart technology, all these resources are combined into one large entity, and controlled from a distance by complex algorithms. The algorithms can focus on different goals: resilience during power outages, grid balance, reduced energy fees or a maximal use of green energy.” A Virtual Power Plant (VPP) aggregates the capacities of heterogeneous DERs, but it is not ‘an aggregator’ as such. “A VPP is one of the concepts that aggregators, which are stakeholders in the energy field, can use,” clarifies Jansseune. “But other stakeholders, like balance responsible parties, use VPP’s as well. VPP’s are efficient and flexible, with their ability to deliver peak load electricity or load-following power generation on short notice.”



Recently, the size and scale of VPP’s have been growing fast. Tesla is currently helping South Australia build a 250 MW virtual power plant, which will be the world’s largest, once built.[1] Ilse Jansseune: “In this enormous residential project, no less than 50,000 homes will be equipped with a 5 kW solar array and a Tesla Powerwall 2 home battery pack. The VPP will be connected to the South Australian grid and the infrastructure is provided for free to the 50,000 households.” The latter is possible thanks to an innovative business model, that ensures lower-income households will benefit from the lower electricity rates.[2] “This is crucial”, says Jansseune. “Green energy and high-tech solutions have long had the reputation of being reserved to the ‘lucky ones’ who can afford the investment. But the families involved in this Australian Tesla-project live in social housing properties. Today, green energy technology is becoming accessible to all: renewables are mainstream now.”  Several competing VPP projects in the region underline South Australia’s reputation as a powerhouse in the clean technology sector. Examples include the SonnenFlat model by the German energy storage provider and battery manufacturer Sonnen[3]. Households with a combination of a PV system and a SonnenBatterie can cover about 75% of their yearly energy requirement with self-produced clean energy. They can buy the remaining 25% at a fixed (‘flat’), low energy tariff for SonnenBatterie owners. In return some of the energy stored in SonnenBatteries may be used to assist in the stabilization of the electricity grid.


 Jansseune isn’t surprised that Australia is taking the lead: “The country suffered from major blackouts in the recent past and its electricity prices are among the highest in the world. Yet, there is never a shortage of sun and the Australian energy market is highly liberalized. All these factors contribute to the success of clean energy solutions in Australia, among which several pioneering VPP projects.” The Belgian situation is different, obviously. Do residential VPP’s have a future here? Jansseune: “With the nation-wide rollout of residential smart meters scheduled for January 2019, we expect to see – for the first time in Belgium – VPP’s grouping residential assets. A VPP can only function when all its assets provide the central controller with data regarding their real time energy production, consumption or storage.  Smart meters continuously measure the real time electricity grid offtake and electricity grid injection. With these data, new software can deduct the energy consumption and production of the assets behind the smart meter. The introduction of residential smart meters throughout our country will certainly create opportunities for new business models and concepts, like VPP’s, in the Belgian energy field. Smart meters make ‘dynamic pricing’ possible, which is an important incentive for consumers to review and alter their energy use.”



VPP’s are not new to the Belgian market. Industrial consumers already use advanced energy solutions that include virtual power plants. Ilse Jansseune: “Think of Green Energy Park Zellik[4], for example. This immense CO2-neutral smart grid – Europe’s largest – integrates an electric and a thermal grid and provides energy to no less than 72 companies. It also serves as a test-ground for versatile and modular battery-to-grid solutions[5] and electric mobility.” Another example is REstore’s cloud-based demand side management solution platfrom FlexPond™ for utilities[6]. Jansseune: “REstore aggregates flexible industrial capacities – 1.7 GW in total – and constantly monitors the grid load. At peak demand moments, companies in REstore’s portfolio help maintain grid balance by load-shifting.” Will the introduction of residential smart meters in Belgium in January 2019 lead to innovative energy solutions and business models in the residential market? Ilse Jansseune: “The Australian examples show that residential VPP’s can contribute to grid stability and security of supply, while making an interesting business case. No doubt Belgian stakeholders in the energy field – be it balance responsible parties, aggregators or others– are eager to follow suit.”