Biodiversity and rehabilitation of natural habitats

It is possible to reconcile the transmission of electricity with biodiversity objectives. In Belgium, Elia has initiated several actions that are proof of this. It even helps species migrate when they are forced to do so because of climate change. The development of the electrical grid for the integration of renewable energy sources can affect the environment and biodiversity. In fact, we pay special attention to preserving and enhancing biodiversity so that our network can be properly integrated. One track of the dimension 2 of the ActNow programme has been dedicated to this point.

Project management in protected areas

We have put in place a project management system for protected areas(for example, woodland areas covered by the Forest Code, Natura 2000 areas and nature reserves) to ensure that we are fully complying with the environmental laws that apply to them.

We put a special emphasis on protecting the fauna and flora along the corridors which stretch below our overhead lines. The total length of these corridors in Natura 2000 areas amounts to more than 320 km.

Expand biodiverse vegetation management through forests (Life Project)

For safety reasons, to prevent falls and short circuits, no trees are allowed to grow in the vicinity of high-voltage lines. Generally, our maintenance policy for overhead lines has entailed razing any vegetation within a growing within a 50-metre- reach either side of an overhead line. This policy is expensive and does not encourage biodiversity since this vegetation provide natural habitats for countless animals and plants.

The LIFE+ Elia-RTE project was a 7-year (2011 – 2017) project that was subsidized by the European Union (EU) and implemented by Elia in Belgium. Its aim was to 'green' several kilometers of forest corridor, and through it, we succeeded in restoring biodiversity to 429 hectares under our lines (as opposed to digging up all of the vegetation with a rotary cutter every 3 to 8 years).  

In 2018, we decided to continue this effort for another 5 years (2018 – 2022), launching the “LIFE2” project on its own means, adding by the end of 2020 140 ha more stable natural environments (like peatlands, forest edge shrubs, grazed pasture land, ponds, etc.) which will be easier and less costly to maintain and far better for biodiversity. Further information on LIFE+ projects can be found on http://www.life-elia.eu/. To know more about the LIFE2 project and get the latest update, consult our press release.

We have also run several communication campaigns aimed at raising various target groups' awareness of the importance of taking biodiversity into account when managing vegetation. Training modules were set up, leaflets were published, and information panels and viewing platforms were installed around our lines. The project is an excellent showcase for all the positive actions we are taking.

Bird protection and development along corridors

Our environmental policy is aimed at preserving and enhancing biodiversity in Belgium. We have therefore developed a specific policy for the protection of birds. The main objective is to reduce the number of birds that collide with our overhead lines. 

We asked Natuurpunt, Natagora and the Research Institute for Nature and Forest (INBO) to produce a risk atlas outlining  the spots which carried the highest risk of bird collision. The 2020 version of the atlas – which updated the 2012 version – shows that 325 kilometers of overhead lines in Belgium currently pose a high risk to birds. Approximately 50 km of these lines were equipped with bird markers over the last 5 years.

Read the study

We are focusing on making these overhead lines safer in order to reduce collision mortality. These portions of the grid are gradually being fitted with bird anti-collision devices over a 10 year-period (starting from 2016). If a project is due to take place on these sections, markers will be installed immediately.

Read more about line markers (in French)

In addition to making overhead lines visible, we take bird nesting periods into account when carrying out our work. We also regularly install nesting boxes in places, which favour biodiversity. We  properly investigate the need for nesting boxes when we receive requests for them, and go on to install them in a majority of such cases.

In some places, birds have the unfortunate habit of gathering in large numbers along power lines, which is inconvenient to local residents and cause difficulties such as paint corrosion. We do not have an immediate solution to this problem, but possible measures that we are exploring could include moving food sources found nearby or using predators.

Increase impact of nature protection activities related to grid development

As mentioned before, one of our biggest challenge is to maintain and expand the grid while ensuring a sustainable approach to environmental impact. To that end, we develop our grid infrastructure according to the following principles of always considering first a grid optimization, then a strengthening of the grid before any further expansion of the grid.
 
In the geographical areas where we operate as TSOs , an environmental impact assessment (EIA) makes part of the permitting requests and is conducted in the early stages of infrastructure projects. It also allows the systematic identification, prediction and analysis of the potential impacts and threats on the physical environment and the biodiversity, as well as social, cultural, and health impacts during both the construction and operation phases.
 
Regarding our offshore activities, we align the development of our infrastructure with the respect of the marine environment.  We also participate  in the Offshore Coalition.

Vegetation around and in our properties

  • Landscaping the space beneath pylons in agricultural landscapes

    Keen to adopt a cost-effective, sustainable method for managing our pylons while strengthening ecological networks located next to our infrastructure, in 2016 we asked the non-profit organisation Faune & Biotopes to implement biodiversity enhancement measures along the high-voltage line between Gramme and Achêne.
    The chosen section covers the agricultural lands of the municipalities of Huy, Vierset, Tinlot, Marchin, Jallet, Ohey, Havelange, Hamois and Ciney.

    The landscaping measures around each pylon base were determined by considering different elements such as biodiversity, the landscape involved and the cost.
    Enhancements are not appropriate for all pylons. In fact, the location of some pylons means that it is not always possible or necessary to develop plant coverage to boost biodiversity. This was the case with pylons located along a boundary or hedge and those in meadows used for grazing.

    The landscaping carried out in 2016 included the planting of 32 native shrubs and 7 fields of flowers. Later on, Elia checked that the seedlings and flowers were growing. That autumn, we performed maintenance on the pylons where landscaping had been carried out and mowed the fields.

    We are learning from these pilot projects to develop a more nature-friendly way to keep managing the areas around our pylons in the years to come.

  • Landscape integration

    When planning projects, not only are economic efficiency, the concerns of local residents and the technology taken into account during the approval procedures, but so are the protection of flora and fauna. 

    In the run-up to such procedures, environmental impact assessments or town-planning permissions application are carried out to minimize nature conservation conflicts at an early stage. A corridor is then identified for the exact route of the electrical line and defined in a subsequent step. 

    At the same time, protection and compensation measures are identified. All these investigations are carried out together with external environmental planners, routing experts and, if necessary, other science and nature conservation experts. Nature requirements are included in the contractual requirements of the infrastructure projects. To discover these measures, go see the following page.

    Indigenous hedges are planted each year around our high-voltage substations to both help our facilities to merge into the surrounding landscape and provide a habitat for local fauna. We also use thorny shrubs to deter intruders. Due to more stringent regulations concerning the security of substations, these hedges are now being combined with low growing meadow stripes along fences.

    The ground near our substations and some plots of land within them have been redeveloped to support biodiversity. For example, flowering meadows, bushes and grass verges have been planted in different places, in accordance with the surrounding landscape.

  • Habitats

    We also implemented several punctual actions to enhance or restore habitats around our assets or administrative sites.  

    Over the past few years several beehives have been installed at our Monnoyer and Crealys sites in Brussels and Gembloux respectively. The installation in Brussels, which was led by BeeOdiversity in cooperation with a number of Brussels-based environmental protection organizations, fits perfectly with our commitment to corporate social responsibility. The installation in Crealys was undertaken together with Belgium. Once a year, the honey harvested from the hives is sold to staff and the proceeds are donated to a charitable organization.

    The Mercator substation in the municipality of Kruibeke has become the home of a rare species of salamander: the great crested newt. In late 2004, we collaborated with one of our members of staff who volunteers at Natuurpunt, tried to develop the land in order to rehabilitate this rare species, building two ponds. 

    Now, almost 20 year later, a population of great crested newts has taken up residence under the Mercator substation. Flushed with this success, we installed four more ponds with the help of the environmental association Regionaal Landschap Schelde-Durme. In May 2017, the Kruibeke pond protection group carried out a census of the substation's ponds. Many species of aquatic insect were identified as living in the ponds, alongside three different species of amphibian, including the rare great crested newt.

    Although we are planning to carry out a large extension project around the substation which will affect one of the ponds, we are also planning out a way  to replace it  with a new pond, so redeveloping the overwintering site of this rare species.

  • Co-develop ecological projects
    It is important for Elia to play a societal role and thus prioritize the interests of the community as well as the sustainability. We strive to build partnerships in order to fund projects that address these concerns. To learn more, please visit our partnerships page.

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