by Katleen De Flander

December 2, 2014

Since my work concentrates on transforming resource flows in cities, I am always very interested in situations which put a society under stress. During times of stress, people and governments are so much more flexible, innovative and inventive than they normally are (or would imagine they could be).

My country, Belgium, is gearing up for electricity shortages predicted for this winter. The reason for the possible shortage is the sudden reduction of national production capacity due to the unexpected shutdown of 3 damaged nuclear reactors this year, and the closure of several gas power stations over the last years (due to declining profitability). Belgium is therefore more dependent on the import of electricity. On cold days, the use of light and heating is obviously higher, which becomes critical when a cold wave shakes large parts of Europe at the same time. Even if there is enough export capacity in other countries, electricity lines have specific capacity limitations.

The Belgian government has developed a brownout plan that divides the country into 6 zones (supplied by specific power stations and substations), each representing consumption of 500 megawatts. In case of a shortage, one of these zones (and its users) will be disconnected from power supply between 17:00 and 20:00 to prevent a complete blackout. People can check online if their street is in one of these 6 zones.


Image credit: “Rolling blackout plan in Belgium”

Together with the weather report, Belgians turn to the electricity indicator to find out their local situation:

  • Green: normal situation
  • Orange: risk for electricity shortage
  • Red: risk for brownout
  • Black: announced electricity brownout

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Most municipalities have already put an emergency plan in place. Dutch municipalities are even offering temporary shelters for the Belgian brownout refugees.

The interesting part is, that while large parts of the world experience blackouts on a daily basis, in a Western European country it is almost unthinkable to be deprived of their 24/7 power supply. Some people reacted with outrage, some are scared. My family members looked surprised when I was obviously delighted with the news. Not because I would wish upon them cold nights with cold soup, but because it is a small shock that might make people realize that resources don’t come for granted. A situation which is happening and will happen more often in the future in many parts of the world, be it for energy, water, phosphorus, sand (yes, global sand supplies are running out, just google it up!) or other resources.

I would argue that we will probably need more extensive emergency plans in the future if we don’t really transform the way we deal with resources (and not just make our use “a bit more efficient”). To give an example, a transformation of our mobility system will need more than an electrification of our car fleet, for which we will need a huge amount of materials and energy to produce the new cars, and which will leave us with a huge pile of petrol fueled cars to be likely exported to another continent (… but still on the same planet!).

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