Belgium use sheds light on more than just its roads

When an astronaut took nighttime pictures of Europe from the International Space Station this year (2017), one nation stood out far below on the twinkling surface of the earth: Belgium.

It is the only country in Europe to keep nearly all of its 2.2 million streetlights on through the night, making it a world leader in light pollution, and easily identifiable even from space.

The phenomenon has been a source of ridicule and humor in Belgium for decades. But since the images were published in May, some have also begun to ask a simple but tough question: Why?

“If that’s what it looks like, we still have a long way to go in terms of sustainable development,” one commenter, Valy Liégois, wrote on the astronaut’s Facebook page. “What purpose does it serve to illuminate at full power?”

The official explanation is that it helps road safety and provides security. But critics doubt this and say the phenomenon sheds light not only on Belgium’s roads but also on a mutually profitable relationship among its politicians, electricity distributors and main energy supplier, Electrabel.

Belgium’s system rewards local politicians for keeping the bulbs blazing, said Peter Reekmans, speaking from his experience as the mayor of the town of Glabbeek.

Streetlight consumption translates into profits for electricity producers, distributors and the state, he said. The profits of electricity distribution companies are paid out “in dividends to the local municipalities that own shares in them, and in salaries and stipends to the local politicians who sit on their oversight boards,” he explained.

The system has “built-in conflicts of interest” for local politicians deciding on energy policy, including about streetlights, he said. “It also makes politics in Belgium quite a profitable profession.”

Mr. Reekmans recently published a book exposing hundreds of obscure government structures involved in what he calls “ethically dubious decision-making.”

He estimates that about 10,000 remunerated seats on the governing boards of public utility companies — not only in the energy sector — are occupied by local politicians.

“With seven governments, six parliaments, 10 provincial governments, 589 municipalities and hundreds of public utility companies, the state has grown so complex that many shady government structures have remained hidden for a very long time,” he said.

And where there is complexity, some energy companies see opportunity, said Eric De Keuleneer, an academic at the Solvay Brussels School of Economics and Management and an expert on the Belgian electricity market.

View Souce: NyTimes

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