Solar energy: Multiple records broken during summer heatwaves

Solar energy: Multiple records broken during summer heatwaves
Credit: Belga/Jasper Jacobs

After breaking the previous two-year record in May this year, the production of solar energy broke another record in July, and August is also looking exceptionally good so far. But is this simply the result of exceptional weather?

July was an absolute record month for solar energy production, as Belgium's electricity system operator Elia recorded a production 935 Gigawatt-hours (GWh), which saw the share of solar energy in the electricity mix amount to 15% last month – also a record.

This, of course, has to do with climate change and sunny weather as well as with the growth of the installed capacity, which has increased by a fifth. The previous record, set in May this year, showed a solar production of 888 GWh. While June did not pass that figure, it was also good for 875 GWh.

The speed at which records are being broken is "unprecedented," said Elia: the record that was set in May 2020, when 683 GWh of solar energy was produced, held for two years until May 2022, and was broken again in July.

Solar panels and wind turbines

The first half of this month – which includes Belgium's hottest week of 2022 and the country's first real heatwave of the year – also saw the GWh's rise quickly, making it possible that July's record will have to make way for a new one at the end of August.

Importantly, Elia also noted that not everything has to hinge on solar, as wind energy is quite complementary to it: while there is less sun during the winter, there is more wind.

Adding wind and solar energy together, February 2022 was a record month in Belgium, accounting for a quarter of the total energy production – mainly thanks to wind energy. Since then, green energy based on wind and solar has already accounted for more than 20% of the energy mix every month, except for March.

Those figures are even higher when only taking Flemish figures into account, mainly because they not only include solar and wind energy on land, but also the energy generated by wind turbines off the Flemish coast – with green energy peaking at 28% of the electricity demand in 2020.

Irregular demand

2020 saw several stormy months as well as a very irregular demand for energy, as the strict pandemic measures saw mandatory shutdowns of big parts of the economy.

Under normal circumstances, power demand does not vary so much from year to year, Elia told De Standaard. Every year, there is a peak demand during the winter months (November-February) and a lower demand during the summer months.

The generation of solar and wind electricity in Flanders more than doubled between January 2014 (424 GWh) and December 2019 (872 GWh), as a result of additional investments in solar panels and wind turbines. The installed capacity of solar panels is now approximately equal to the capacity of the wind turbines on land and at sea combined.

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However, the growing share of green electricity also means that energy production is becoming more erratic. By contrast, nuclear energy is predictable and stable, insofar as the power stations do not have to deal with breakdowns or unexpected maintenance.

In the case of green electricity, it is more important to match demand to production, which requires a different approach than in the past, according to Elia. In practice, it means that the end consumer will play an important role in balancing the electricity grid.

Thanks to new technologies such as heat pumps, electric cars or batteries, electricity consumption can be adapted to the production of the moment. This would come down to charging the batteries of an electric car when a lot of green energy is available, and calling on those batteries when there is a shortage.


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