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What is the flexibility market and who can join?

Last updated on 24 January 2020

The amount of electricity fed into the electricity grid must always be equal to the amount of electricity consumed. The balance of the grid is a physical constraint.
It is becoming increasingly complex to maintain this balance, for many reasons:

  • the increase in renewable production, which can vary greatly depending on the weather;
  • the evolution of our consumption patterns;
  • structural problems (shutdown of nuclear power plants, power shortages etc.).

The flexibility market is one way to maintain the balance on the electricity grid.

The flexibility market today: for industry

The flexibility market is organised by Elia, the Belgian electricity transmission system operator. It is aimed at major electricity consumers, i.e. companies or hospitals connected to the high-voltage grid. The owners of large power generation units (cogeneration units of companies for example) may also join.

Concretely, in exchange for financial compensation, companies agree to adapt their use of the electricity grid to the demands of the grid. They may, for example, temporarily shut down certain energy-guzzling industrial processes if they demand an excessive use of energy compared to the available energy.

Generally, these companies go through aggregators called Flexibility Service Providers, specialised companies that put together a portfolio of clients who have agreed to deliver this flexibility service. The aggregators act as intermediaries between Elia and their clients.

Everything is under control on the distribution grid in Brussels

However, in certain neighbourhoods, discrepancies between electricity generation and demand may result in grid congestion. Congestion means that the grid has reached certain technical limits, for example an excess of power or voltage.

These situations can damage the installations. Therefore, automatic systems disconnect the elements of the grid that have reached their limit (just like your circuit breakers at home). If these peaks are very rare, they are not problematic. But imagine if they happened every day!

Currently, despite the rise in renewable energy, Brussels is the only locality faced with grid congestion problems for different reasons:

  • The use of solar energy in the capital is quite dispersed compared to certain areas of Flanders or Wallonia, where in some neighbourhoods all houses are equipped with PV panels.
  • Charging stations for electric vehicles are few and far between.
  • Heat pumps are more difficult to install in the city.

But things are set to change. It’s only a matter of time...

How will private consumers be able to join the flexibility market?

We can think of two ways to involve private consumers in boosting the flexibility of the grid. This evolution goes hand in hand with the development of the grid and the expected arrival of smart meters.

Implicitly via incentives

This action plan is already being implemented. Concretely, consumers are encouraged to adapt their use of the electricity grid. How?

  • through the phase-out of the compensation scheme for the installation of PV panels. This encourages owners of PV panels to consume electricity as they produce it rather than reinjecting it into the grid;
  • through systems like collective self-consumption ;
  • by coming up with new ways of invoicing electricity usage taking into account not only the actual consumption but also the maximum capacity the consumer wishes to use from the grid (this mainly applies to business customers).

Explicitly

In the longer term, it may become possible to remotely disconnect electric cars from their charging stations once congestion has been detected on the grid, for example. 

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