Smart buildings for a sustainable future


Smart buildings for a sustainable future

The energy transition puts a lot of pressure on the electrical grid. With a share of 30% in our national energy consumption, the built environment can play an important role in ensuring this transition to be a smooth one. The optimal path towards a future of sustainable and flexible energy use is, however, not yet known. NWO Perspectief programme Smart Energy Systems in the Built Environment (SES-BE) helps uncover this path.

The energy transition is about replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy sources such as solar and wind energy. As a consequence, energy will no longer be produced in a few large power plants, but at many locations all over the country. Solar and wind power can furthermore cause unexpected local power surges in the electrical grid. Two important reasons to work towards maximising the flexibility in our energy systems.

‘Within the SES-BE-programme, we search for practical solutions for the conversion, storage and local distribution of energy within the built environment,’ says Phuong Nguyen, SES-BE programme leader and associate professor in the Electrical Energy Systems group at the TU/e department of Electrical Engineering.

In other words, how much flexibility can we add to a building, campus or neighbourhood in order to prepare for fluctuations in the supply of and demand for energy? ‘To help answer this question, we build models of smart energy systems,’ Nguyen says. ‘We cover both electricity and heat. Future analyses may also include neighbourhood energy storage in hydrogen.’

A comprehensive approach

Within Perspectief, a funding instrument within the NWO-domain Applied and Engineering Sciences, researchers work together in a consortium to execute a comprehensive research programme. In the past decade, the parties participating in SES-BE – the technical universities of Delft and Eindhoven, the Centrum Wiskunde & Informatica, and about twenty companies – all ran into the same issues, resulting in similar insights. ‘We heard lots of stories, concepts and promises about how to realize the energy transition,’ says Wim Maassen, Senior Consultant Energy and Sustainability at Royal HaskoningDHV. ‘You can try to connect all these systems, but will it work?’ While the university researchers of the project explore technological and mathematical depths, the participating companies ensure a practical perspective.

In some regions, the number of requests for connecting renewable energy sources to the grid has increased sevenfold

‘Connecting many different disciplines is what makes the SES-BE programme so innovative,’ Nguyen says. ‘On the hardware side we work on advanced power transformers, we build software tools to simulate the various flows of energy within a building and we model the effects of legal and economic policies.’ These latter models can, for example, be used to assess the role of incentives in stimulating transition friendly behaviour amongst end-users. What will encourage them to invest in the local storage of electricity and heat, or to postpone their demand for energy to a later time, reducing the risk of grid failure? ‘This is about much more than smart pricing schemes,’ Nguyen says.

The role of the Smart Grid

Being a major network operator, Alliander is an important participant in the project. For multiple decades, they have been working on the so-called Smart Grid. The many sensors they have added to the grid allow the early detection of power fluctuations as well as their mitigation by rerouting electricity. Potential disturbances can even be predicted ahead of time. ‘In some regions, however, the number of requests for connecting renewable energy sources to the grid has increased sevenfold,’ says Pallas Agterberg, director of strategy at Alliander. ‘This leads to new peak currents and possible power failures.’

Limiting investments

Additional investments into thicker power cables and bigger transformers can help in managing these peak currents. But smart solutions, involving the end-users, may limit the need for such investments. After all, the steep increase in the number of solar panels means that more and more end-users have become energy producers as well. ‘We are eager to share our expertise on balancing the network at a local level,’ Agterberg says, ‘for example by ensuring that all electricity and heat produced in a certain neighbourhood will also be consumed within that same neighbourhood. But it is very difficult, for both major energy producers and end-users, to let go of the dominant mindset of centralized production.’

The office as a use case

The various research directions within the project are anchored in use cases, including, for example, an office building. ‘Office buildings consume a lot of energy and they are quite prevalent within the Netherlands,’ Maassen says. ‘Within their immediate vicinity, and in synergy with other buildings, they can play an important role in transitioning towards sustainable and flexible energy use. There is plenty of room for innovation, but it still is very difficult to predict the actual flow and use of energy within these buildings. We set out to try and understand these.’

That is why the researchers turned an office building in Breda into a living lab, adding a great number of sensors to the building, solar panels to the roof as well as highly advanced battery technology. ‘Present-day regulations do not yet allow interactions between the smart energy systems within the building and the Smart Grid outside,’ Nguyen says. ‘We expect the policy side of our project to come up with recommendations. This should pave the way to, five years from now, optimally use the first fully smart building that is connected to the Smart Grid.’

Testing at UMCs

The campuses of the UMC Utrecht and the location VUmc of the Amsterdam UMC are use cases involving multiple buildings. These are important scenarios as the eight university medical centres in the Netherlands are responsible for roughly 1% of the CO2-emissions of the built environment.

‘These use cases are about building-related energy use only, thereby disregarding the medical equipment,’ Maassen explains. ‘By carefully analysing actual building usage and by implementing smart climate control systems that exactly satisfy energy demand, we can minimize investments in renewable energy sources, such as solar panels, and in the storage of heat, cold and electricity.

Together with students, the researchers have examined the outpatient clinics as well as patient rooms. The goal was to find design solutions that support direct patient care in a safe and comfortable setting while minimizing energy use, energy expenses and CO2-emissions.

A helping hand

We will inevitably see a change in how and when we consume energy. Many organisations and local authorities are, however, overwhelmed by the many smart solutions offered, making them hesitant to decide on the best path towards a sustainable future.

The SES-BE-project doesn’t offer cut-and-dried technological solutions but rather the building blocks to support such decision making. ‘All knowledge obtained within the context of this project will help the Netherlands in reaching the targets of its climate agreement, such as a 95% reduction in CO2-emissions by the year 2050,’ Maassen says. How will this impact you, as a consumer? Perhaps, in time, you will have a connection for direct current (DC) installed next to your fuse box. But you will certainly be connected to an electrical grid that is both sustainable and reliable.

Text: Merel Engelsman

Research programme Smart Energy Systems in the Built Environment started in 2014 and was established by prof. ir. Wil Kling en prof. ir. Wim Zeiler (Eindhoven University of Technology). Kling became programme leader. When Kling suddenly passed away shortly after the programme started, prof. dr. Madeleine Gibescu and then dr. Phuong Nguyen took over his role of programme leader.


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