Low Energy Districts
The realization of low energy districts can be difficult due to several obstacles. For a start, using local energy management systems can be highly complex due to privacy issues, insufficient economic feasibility, a lack of standards and a lack of turnkey solutions. Due to an increasing share of renewables, energy management has also become more complicated.
Moreover, legal aspects do also pose hurdles. For example, legal and policy frameworks for data protection and privacy are missing. And although legislation for self-consumption of electricity is more common nowadays (though not yet fully in place), there is a lack of legislation for heating. In Sweden for example, this means the following: If someone does install more than 255 kW PV/ property, he/she is considered as a producer and needs to start up an energy company and pay taxes, even if he/she is using the energy in his/her own organisation.
Moreover, even though data is available, data accessibility remains a problem. Heritage and special protection of buildings can also get in the way of low energy district development. Stakeholders also report the abundance of regulations and authorized administrations in relation to the planning of building renovations. It can also be challenging to get a common agreement on energy provision which is mandatory in most cases if a house has different owners. Furthermore, it is impossible to use public spaces for private facilities, such as biomass boilers, geothermal installations, and thermal heat exchangers.
Additionally, the energy regulations for buildings are on a building level. This is a barrier if one wants to look at the energy system for a community. This is making things especially complex when aiming for an energy balance based on sharing with other buildings. From an economic point of view, the low energy price and the lack of business models for lower energy districts pose substantial risks. Additionally, many business models require mass production and uptake to make them work in the long run. And finally, good communication with electric utility companies need to be established to access the data from smart meters.
There are various suggestions on how to deal with these challenges from a technical point of view. First, forecasting techniques for energy demand, production and storage capacity are nowadays critical to assure grid stability. A Virtual Power Plant (VPP) can be used for community energy management and for increasing the interoperability between systems. Data in turn should be aggregated so that both the identity of the owner and specific information on dwellings remain anonymous.
Legally, local political leadership can drive change legal changes. Therefore, persons in charge of the smart city project should engage politicians in a systematic way.
Additionally, energy supply regulations on a community level should be established, allowing to excess electricity and heat from nearby buildings.
From an economic perspective, standards to drive change and strengthen business cases as well as more stable subsidies should be used. Furthermore, one should change current business models in the sense that they should not only be based on short-term profit but also on avoiding future costs, while at the same time keeping an eye on other indicators related to health issues.
To develop low energy districts, there is also a need for more bottom-up communication and co-creation as well as for more resources to be invested in communication/participation to assure long-term engagement. It is definitely beneficial to include sufficient participatory processes and effective communication with utility grid operators right from the start of the project. (See also Citizen Engagement.)
Finally, other types of indicators than those related to energy savings should be developed for monitoring low energy districts, so that next to the typically long term payback periods for energy saving measures also some indicators with a short term effect can be evaluated.
Plan for Implementation
There are many enablers for the creation of low energy districts. It is recommended to engage with political leaders in a systematic way and to give residents the power to control their own systems. Again, the Virtual Power Plant (VPP) can be used for community energy management, increasing the interoperability between systems.
Furthermore, new tools should be developed for cities to support the implementation of best practises and collaboration with and transparency towards citizens and partners during the whole project. It is also advisable to consider building renovations individually while dealing with the energy system at community level. For example, if you want to use excess heat from sewage water, it is more efficient to do this with several buildings. Or if a historically protected building cannot be equipped with a solar PV installation, it could receive its energy from nearby buildings.
It is advisable to introduce a CO2 tax and an electricity certification system which introduces extra costs if one uses fossil fuels and incentives if one produces renewable electricity.
Moreover, communication, co-creation and engagement aspects as well as knowledge transfer (for example through the presentation of concrete results between Lighthouse and Follower Cities) are real door openers. The European Commission working closely with the cities, helps them to better understand cities’ needs. Residents’ associations and other stakeholder groups in turn can share the benefits that would arise from low carbon systems. Persons in charge should also raise awareness among the community and should demonstrate the importance of refurbishment. Residents need to be aware of the benefits, not only economic but also concerning quality of life (e.g. thermal comfort) and health. Besides, stories of successful pilots/demonstrations should be made increasingly public, site visits can be organised, and best practices should be shared among cities.