Beyond pilots: scaling up energy innovation in cities

Our current electricity grid was built hundreds of years ago, when power generation was centralised and our energy needs were far simpler. Electricity was distributed from large stable power plants to the consumers through a unidirectional flow that was easily predictable and did not require complex control. But over the last decades, cities have been going through a substantial change, seeing an exponential increase of their energy needs which now accounts for the 70% of the global energy consumption and related CO2 emissions. Urban areas represent the frontline of the energy transition and are actively working to make the energy transition happening at the local level.

 by Giulia Rinaldi and Rolf Bastiaanssen

Our ageing electricity network is not adequate to respond to today’s consumers’ complex demands, nor to effectively integrate an increasing share of intermittent and decentralised renewable generation. A new intelligent infrastructure is needed, with enhanced flexibility to avoid expensive physical upgrades in the future.

The smart grid potential

Smart grids are the key enabler of the transition to a low-carbon economy facilitating two-way communication between producers and users based on real time data.

A digitalised and decentralised grid is capable to operate the electricity distribution in a smart way, avoiding blackouts, reducing losses and releasing the innovation potential of new low-carbon technologies at scale such as electric vehicles and energy storage.

Energy is delivered where and when is required by coordinating the distributed energy resources, transport, storage and consumption. Additionally, smart grids empower prosumers to play an active role within this new complex energy system delivering large volume of green energy and demand-flexibility.

Cities around the world are developing local innovation initiatives in order to demonstrate the opportunities a smart grid can offer their entire community. However, pilots are usually conceived as stand-alone projects tailored to the local conditions whose low-carbon impact is relatively modest, especially at a regional level. The critical challenge remains to enable a wider transformation of electricity grids by upscaling and replicating these niche innovations.

No single city has the resources needed to test a broad range of new models and fully assess all available options that would fill the gap between cities’ current activities and their sustainability ambitions.

This is where the EU-funded ACCESS project comes in.

The ACCESS project connects leading experts IfM, VITO, Arhus University and Johanneberg Science Park with four ambitious municipalities (West Suffolk Council, Malmö, Amersfoort and Mechelen) to enhance their capacity to plan future energy systems through a comprehensive and systematic approach.

The ACCESS knowledge partners will provide expertise and tools to design specific pathways based on the community’s needs and go beyond the individual smart grid projects by identifying the specific business case to efficiently scale up their smart grid related investments. ACCESS will demonstrate the following innovative models towards a net-zero energy system:

  • West Suffolk Council will connect commercial and industrial prosumers into a multi-sector energy hub to exchange locally generated renewable energy and support local grid constraints.
  • Malmö Kommune is currently building a large parking lot that will function as local energy hub, integrating renewable sources, storage and EV charging in an efficient DC grid to cut power peaks and losses locally.
  • The city of Mechelen is setting up a mobility hub at the core of a local energy community whose assets will be used to provide flexibility to the local network and maximise self-consumption of local green energy.
  • The municipality of Amersfoort will establish a trading community where individual households will be empowered to exchange green energy with their neighbours.

Before the solutions are tested in a real-life environment, ACCESS first builds up an ecosystem of experts and knowledge partners to support the cities, providing the necessary expertise in technology, governance and financing models. Collaboration goes beyond connecting cities facing similar challenges. The most effective way to build a future-proof energy system is to work directly with the experts developing the technology.

The project has set targets, including a 25% reduction in CO2 emissions, all of which would be facilitated by a widespread uptake of resource-efficient, low-carbon technologies that have already been tested. Proving these solutions work makes investing in them a much less risky proposition. As implied in the name, the ACCESS project is about making sustainability more accessible at a local level.

The ACCESS project is supported by Bax & Company. To find out more, check out the website or get in touch!

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