Alfen celebrates 15 years of innovation in Belgium: ‘From a pioneer to a renowned partner in the energy transition’
Alfen is celebrating 15 years of innovation in Belgium. We sat down with Yves Vercammen, our country manager for Belgium, to gain his insights and perspectives on where we have been and we are headed.
Yves, congratulations on 15 years in Belgium! Tell us about your early days with the Belgian team.
“We were a small team when I joined the Belgian team in 2016: one salesman, one technical draughtsman, one project engineer and one site manager. Nine years before, in 2007, my colleague Johan was the first Belgian to start working for Alfen. With his mid-voltage grid expertise, he started to lay the foundation for our Smart Grid Solutions business in Belgium.
I was initially tasked with developing our Energy Storage business by identifying new leads and appealing markets across Europe. I soon became aware of the huge potential for growth in Belgium if we could focus beyond the established transformer substation business and apply a cross-selling approach with our energy storage and EV charging business lines. Ever since, I attach great importance to developing a wide network of stakeholders in the Belgian energy ecosystem and promoting Alfen as a unique company and partner with 85 years of expertise.”
What do you remember about your first Alfen project in Belgium?
“I signed my first main project at the end of 2016 with ENGIE, a large French multinational energy company. It revolved around the first battery-based energy storage system in Belgium to help stabilise the national grid: so-called ancillary services. Earlier that year, grid operator Elia officially gave permission to use battery technology for this service as they realised that energy storage would become a crucial asset in the energy transition.
We supplied a 1 MW battery energy storage system to Engie’s production facility in Drogenbos, Brussels. At that time, deploying large-scale batteries for grid stability was truly unique in Belgium. Being pioneers in this field made us incredibly proud - especially partnering with a big player like ENGIE.”
'With the ENGIE project, we laid the foundation for our renowned ancillary service expertise for grid stabilisation and related application algorithms.'
“Grid stability services has gained in importance across Europe for well-known reasons such as fluctuating renewable energy sources, growing adoption of electric cars, decommissioning of traditional power plants and general global electrification.
With the ENGIE project, we laid the foundation for our renowned ancillary service expertise for grid stabilisation and related application algorithms.”
So with your arrival, Alfen became fully represented in Belgium?
“That's right. By fostering cross-selling between our substation, EV charging and energy storage business units, we rapidly gained market share and needed to expand our local team accordingly. Consequently, Belgium became the first country outside the Netherlands to represent all three of Alfen’s business lines.
Over the years, we gradually added more and more local expertise to maximise the service level we offered to our partners and customers. Alfen Belgium has become a renowned, leading player in driving Europe’s transition from fossil fuels to zero carbon to limit climate change.
I’m very proud of our highly motivated team members, who are consulted for their expertise and advice daily. They are the true reason for Alfen’s success in Belgium!”
How exactly is Belgium thinking about the energy transition?
“To achieve climate neutrality, plenty of initiatives are happening in Belgium. Our energy mix is changing a lot under the influence of the politically driven phase-out of nuclear energy and the replacement of fossil energy sources with renewables. Mass adoption of electric driving is gaining momentum with the European government’s encouragement increasing. Plus, our own Belgian government is providing fiscal incentives and subsidies to promote the switch towards fossil-free mobility.
All these initiatives are needed to achieve Belgium's climate ambitions however, it leads to all kinds of challenges for a variety of stakeholders. Is Belgium ready for so many EVs on the road? Is the grid capable of supplying the enormous energy demand for e-mobility? Will there be enough reliable alternatives to nuclear power generation? What impact will there be on other forms of electrification such as heating? That’s where Alfen comes in. We are an energy specialist in all of these areas.
Public charging infrastructure still needs an important boost in Belgium. Fortunately, local authorities are increasingly committed to deploying more and more public EV charging stations by issuing long-term exploitation tenders. In cooperation with our e-mobility partners, Alfen is winning these tenders by offering a joint end-to-end service proposition, including high-end infrastructure hardware. Our Twin EV charging station provides a reliable and future-proof solution for public charging. Together with Allego, we were selected for the first large-scale rollout in Flanders back in 2017, and we have deployed more than 2500 charging stations in 4 years. More recently, we cooperated with multinational integrated energy company Total Energies to supply our Twin chargers as part of their contract with the Department Mobility and Public Works of the Flemish government.
What role does Alfen play with its EV charging, smart grid and energy storage products?
Needless to say, the rise of e-mobility, as well as general electrification trends puts a lot of pressure on distribution and transmission grid operators. Accelerated by decommissioning plans for nuclear power and the exponential deployment of decentralised renewable energy sources such as wind and solar, grid companies are being forced to expand and modernise their infrastructure at a pace they cannot perform in the traditional way by just putting more copper in the ground.
So, we’re seeing various alternative initiatives such as investments in large-scale battery storage plants at crucial locations in the grid. The Belgian Battery Energy Storage System (BESS) pipeline is huge. We’re seeing utilities, project developers and large industrial players announce multiple initiatives with significant GWhs capacity. With smaller-scale behind-the-meter initiatives, Belgium is definitely a front runner in this space.
Alfen is recognised as an energy storage pioneer in Belgium, so we are often consulted for our technical expertise. A crucial element for success now is partnership. More specifically, teaming-up with national and international ecosystem partners is essential and greatly needed since BESS business cases aren't as predictive compared to wind and solar projects. Bringing the right parties together is a proven success factor as it fosters innovation and creativity, leading to unique and profitable application stacking.
Beyond new grid initiatives such as battery storage, building and maintaining a robust and reliable distribution backbone remains of utmost importance to local grid operators. Alfen plays a crucial role. We have supplied a significant number of transformer substations for a wide variety of applications such as large industrial players and small to medium enterprises, cogeneration assets for greenhouses, wind- and solar farms, ultrafast EV charging locations and local energy communities – and connected them to the mid-voltage grid.
I’m extremely proud that we recently launched a new product in this space: the Altro is a small sized walk-in substation to house transformers up to 630kVA. It’s the first station homologated by Synergrid, the Belgian federation of electricity and gas network operators, under their renewed C2-115 requirements. With extensive ongoing electrification, the Altro is a perfect solution for companies that need to renew or upgrade their grid connection.”
How is energy storage playing an increasingly important role in Belgium?
“Its role is crucial. Not only are large-scale BESS initiatives emerging but we see the need for eco-friendly alternatives to diesel generators growing.
Alfen’s TheBattery Mobile is a clean and safe alternative to these diesel gensets. Based on automotive battery park technology, it’s a high-dense battery storage system housed in a 10ft container. This technology choice guarantees safety, high performance and intrinsic mobility.
We’ve seen an exponential demand for these systems for a wide variety of applications. You can find the mobile batteries at festival, or in an off-grid mode to replace or complement diesel gensets, as well as at EV charging hubs or ultrafast charging locations, where they offer a flexible peak-shaving solution. We’re also seeing them pop up at construction sites as traditional generators get banned from city centres more and more.
An additional trend we see is that unit owners are teaming up with Flexibility Service Providers to let these systems participate in ancillary services – for example Frequency Containment Reserve markets - to generate additional revenue streams for investors.
TheBattery Mobile is the new clean-tech solution for any kind of pop-up energy need that can even contribute to grid stability services.”
What are the hot topics in the Belgian market right now?
“Like all European countries, Belgian residents are facing extremely high energy prices and are seeking ways to lower their electricity bills. EV drivers, in particular, are facing high home charging costs.
Rooftop solar panels on people's homes is very common in Belgium, and it’s obvious that owners want to maximise self-consumption by matching energy demand and supply to the extent possible. As the largest energy consumer in the house, we see a crucial role for EVs. Charging stations with smart technology can help. The Belgian market is seeking capabilities like solar charging. With some simple settings, users can decide whether EV charging should happen with self-produced solar energy or via the grid. It will also allow them to control their energy bill as part of the new capacity tariff scheme that will go live in 2023. This scheme will reduce peaks in power consumption and change our behaviour when charging our EV.”
Is there a unique niche project that comes to mind that highlights Alfen’s capabilities in Belgium?
“Beyond the ENGIE project and the big tenders we've won for our charging stations, I’m proud that we’ve been the preferred substation supplier for the Belgian railways for many years. These often extremely large substations enable automatic communication between trains and railway signals. It’s crucial for the roll-out of the European Train Control System (ETCS), which has been implemented in the Belgian rail network. This system improves safety across Europe's railways, allowing smart technology to automatically stop a train as soon as an unsafe situation threatens. With this niche project, Alfen underlines its contribution to fossil-free transportation.”
What can we expect in the next 15 years for the Alfen Belgium team?
“Alfen will continue to innovate over the next 15 years as our people and products adapt quickly in a rapidly changing playing field in Belgium and the rest of Europe. Innovations are rapidly succeeding each other: we will continue to make our products smart and relevant to meet our customers’ electrification needs – and we will continue to further integrate the products of our three divisions to create solutions that help our partners and customers tackle their toughest energy challenges.
With our Smart Charging Network technology, we will continue to offer a cost-effective way to deploy a sizeable charging hub with limited impact on the grid connection – and we will continue to help customers keep grid investments as low as possible by further integrating functionalities between EV charging, substations and energy storage.”
What makes you most proud of Alfen’s Belgian team?
“I often describe Alfen as an established energy solution specialist with a start-up mentality. This mentality definitely applies to our team in Belgium. Starting with solid expertise in mid-voltage technology, we’ve successfully transitioned from a pioneer to a renowned partner for EV charging infrastructure and large-scale energy storage projects. Even stronger: thanks to our team’s dynamism and entrepreneurial spirit, we are market leaders in these domains. I am extremely proud of what we have accomplished, and I’m eager to continue serving our customers and partners with excellence for the next 15 years and beyond.”