Blog: How can electricity shortages be addressed in a fairer way?


The Belgian electricity provision was recently put to a challenge. If, at a given moment this winter, there is insufficient electricity available, the load-shedding plan (or afschakelplan) will be brought into action. In that case, a limited number of users will be temporarily disconnected from the grid. How does this work exactly and can this be spread in a fair way?

Written by Evelyn Heylen, post-doctoral research at the Department of Electrical Engineering at KU Leuven and EnergyVille. She investigates the reliability of electricity systems from a technical and socio-economic point of view.

The unavailability of 6 of the 7 nuclear power plants poses a challenge for the Belgian security of electricity supply. Doel 1, 2 & 4 have been out of service for some time and recently delays have been announced in the maintenance process of Tihange 2 & 3. Despite the planned relaunch after maintenance of Tihange 1 on 18 November, these uncertainties in the system jeopardize the balance between supply and demand for electricity. This balance is necessary to guarantee an overall correct functioning of the electricity system. The load-shedding plan (or afschakelplan) is the ultimate resource to guarantee this balance.

Most end users of electricity experience  the load-shedding plan, that comes into action when an insufficient amount of electricity is available, as unfair. Within the current plan, end users in selected parts of the country are alternately disconnected, while other users in other parts of the country are off the hook 1. This way only a limited group of electricity users account for guaranteeing the general security of the system. They experience some kind of hindrance, but aer not offered any compensation in return.

It is possible to enhance the fairness of the shutdowns for residential and commercial small users by linking electricity rates to the provided reliability of the electricity provision. At this moment, only bigger industrial and commercial users can engage in contracts in which, at the demand of the transmission system operator, and in exchange of a compensation, a fixed amount of their energy use is decreased when a electricity shortage occurs. To enable this they make use of the flexibility of their electricity demand, given that several industrial processes (e.g. cooling) can be driven with a buffer capacity. Similar to the large-scale consumers of electricity, also smaller residential and commercial consumers have a flexible energy demand. For example drying and cleaning clothes isn’t time specific and can be postponed, lighting can be reduced or charging electric vehicles can be spread in time. The current electricity rates don’t encourage small end users to make use of this flexibility. If in the future tariffs are linked to the reliability provided, small end users can choose to exchange comfort for lower energy rates.

Rates linked to services provided are not new. They already exist in airline sectors, where low-cost agencies, such as Ryanair or Easyjet, have caused a revolution in ticket pricing. They noticed people were willing to sacrifice their level of comfort, e.g. less luggage and no meals on board, if this leads to a cheaper ticket. The electricity sector currently uses the model of the same service for every user. This model is however no longer applicable when the load-shedding plan is enabled since only a limited amount of end users will then be affected. We have to dare to ask ourselves if, within the electricity sector, we should also make the transition towards individualised services per users and taking into account the desired level of comfort.

Individualised services require the end user to be able to indicate whether he/she is willing to give up (part of) his/her electricity demand in exchange for a compensation or lower rates. To begin with, clients could for example be able to choose between different contracts with a varying number of maximal shutdowns per year. End users that accept a higher chance of being disconnected can then get a lower tariff, while at the same time a higher tariff is available for users wishing a higher level of reliability. The tariff chosen reflects the desired level of comfort. That way, the shutdowns will also be considered fairer and can be spread over more customers and regions.

To bring these individualised services into practice modern technologies such as smart electricity metres and demand response are needed. These technologies enable the customers to remotely shut down taking into account the contract they have chosen. In the future these technologies will even make it able to only partly shut down the electricity supply. Being able to control smart appliances in a home, the system operator will be able to disconnect only a part of the energy demand of every client. It can for example dim part of the lighting or slow down the charging process of the electric vehicle. This leads to extra comfort for the customer since only the flexible energy demand will be affected. This way an entire shutdown can be avoided.

A questionnaire recently performed in Belgium in response to the energy pact demonstrated that an electricity system with individualised reliability and comfort levels doesn’t have to be a far-fetched dream. The questionnaire showed 90% of the respondents are willing to actively manage their electricity demand in order to contribute to the energy transition.² 53% of the respondents find it acceptable to experience a lower level of comfort in exchange for a lower tariff. Hence it could be possible that within a few years you have to choose a tariff that reflects your desired comfort in terms of the reliability of your electricity provision in an ‘EasyNet’.



2 These results give an indication of te potential. The representativeness of the full population has not been demonstrated. Information about the exact amount of responses and the distribution of the respondents over different social classes in the questionnaire have not been demonstrated.


Heylen E., Ovaere M., Van Hertem D., Deconinck G. ” Fairness of Power System Load-Shedding Plans.” IEEE SMC 2018., 6 pages, IEEE

Ovaere M., Heylen E., Proost S., Deconinck G. and Van Hertem D, “How detailed value of lost load data impact power system reliability decisions: a trade-off between efficiency and equity.” Discussion paper series, DPS16.26 KU Leuven, Department of Economics


Dirk van Hertem

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