Energy-neutral in 2050: designing a municipal road map

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At the Paris climate conference held in late 2015, agreements were reached to bring about an energy-neutral built environment by 2050. How will municipalities meet this goal? A transition of this kind demands a new energy system. Social innovations, technical developments, and a willingness to experiment will be needed.

The current energy system is not capable of making the change to sustainable energy provision. “The energy system will have to change, radically,” says Nienke Maas, area development advisor at TNO. “There will be ever more decentralized generation; energy consumers will also become producers; and sustainable energy production by wind and solar will increase the variability of energy supply. The transition towards an energy-neutral built environment is not a straightforward business. Dependencies in time, in choices between districts and municipalities, and in spatial investments and interests between stakeholders mean that reaching good decisions in all districts and areas is a complicated business.”

“If we are to reach the Paris climate targets, then waiting around is not an option. Municipalities will have to get going, and learn from their experiments.”

Experiments towards sustainability

Technological developments are taking place at enormous speed. “Energy transition is an ongoing process. You must consistently identify the best possible choice from among the options available at that moment. And it’s not just the technology that is moving fast; so is the legislation. That creates uncertainties,” explains Arjan van Diemen, sustainable energy business developer at TNO. “It might be a bit uncomfortable to admit this, but we don’t know exactly what the best course of action is. That’s why it’s so important to experiment, purposefully and consciously, with different sustainability measures. We simply don’t yet know how well ‘smart grids’ – computer-controlled systems managing the distribution of heat and electricity – will work out,” Maas adds.

Restoring municipal direction

“Local authorities often enthusiastically embark on a variety of energy-saving and sustainability pilots, but they have no overview of how these projects might help or, for that matter, hinder one another. We have developed a 6-step model that helps municipalities decide where they can best begin,” says Van Diemen. A municipal district or area is charted, current and projected energy/heat requirements are examined, and possible energy measures identified – for example, how many wind generators would be needed to meet a given share of energy demand, and where they could best be located. The model makes clear what the new energy system would look like. “The collected data ultimately lead to a number of alternative ‘measure packages’ or scenarios, which we then screen against the municipality’s existing plans and requirements, for instance whether it wants wind generators in a particular area or not. This lets us identify the options for a given neighbourhood, city, or area, as well as the cost and planning aspects. This gives a municipality a long-term objective, and shows them what kind of measures they should support – and which they should not! – in order to reach their objectives. We’re helping to restore municipal direction,” Van Diemen explains.

“Besides calculating scenarios we also do simulations; for instance, we can show what happens in a municipality if ten electric cars return energy to a street.”

Made to measure

TNO has already carried out these scenario studies for a number of districts and municipalities in the Netherlands, including a neighbourhood in The Hague and the municipalities of Houten, Bunnik, and Wijk bij Duurstede. These areas cannot be compared directly; while one has a great deal of poorly-insulated collective housing, another has well-insulated 1970s and Vinex housing, and another is an outlying area with farm buildings. Van Diemen: “As you can imagine, each of these areas needs a different solution. We can’t give generalized advice to municipalities. What a given council or area can do to move towards an energy-neutral built environment is always specific to that location. It has to be made to measure. And that’s what our expertise delivers. Besides calculating scenarios we also do simulations; for instance, we can show what happens in a municipality if three wind generators are installed, or if ten electric cars return energy to a street.”

Reaching the Paris targets

Besides technical innovation, the road to ‘gas-free’ neighbourhoods will demand a large degree of social innovation, in Maas’ view. “The energy system is changing, and decisions will have to be made for each area. This will need to be a collective process, because the various actors involved will have to take decisions that point in the same direction. The choice made in one neighbourhood has consequences for energy system choices in adjacent neighbourhoods. If we are to reach the Paris climate objectives then waiting around is not an option. Municipalities will have to get going, and learn from their experiments. As a society we still have a lot to discover and learn about this energy transition, so sharing and developing knowledge will be essential. Municipalities can’t do this independently; it needs a programmed approach. At TNO we have drawn up the contours of a programme called ‘Paris at the neighbourhood level’ (Parijs op wijkniveau).”

“What a given council or area can do to move towards an energy-neutral built environment is always specific to that location. It has to be made to measure. And that’s what our expertise delivers.”

Improving sustainability in practice

TNO is currently carrying out several sustainability projects, such as Sustainable Ameland. As a naturally delimited area, the island of Ameland forms an excellent environment in which to test new techniques and smart systems. In the Hybrid Energy System Integration (HESI) facility in Groningen, companies are testing innovations that bring an intelligent, flexible energy system closer. And through the Industrial Estates Energy Positive (Bedrijventerreinen Energiepositief, BE+) foundation, Dutch entrepreneurs are being helped to drastically reduce their energy use. The SolaRoad kit (wouldn’t it be great if our roads were solar panels?), ZOEnergy Amsterdam (a joint project to make the Amsterdam-Zuidoost suburbs more sustainable) and the ‘energy-positive house’ are other examples of innovative projects.

If you, as a municipality or region, agree that knowledge sharing, knowledge development and collective learning are important for the coming energy transition, if you see potential in a programmed approach, and you want to join (or learn more about) ‘Paris at the neighbourhood level’, then please get in touch with Nienke Maas.

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