Scaling up climate solutions

The urgency of acting on climate change is abundantly clear to all – all except a “handful of fanatics that deny the science”, as Spanish Prime Minister Sanchez put it at the opening of the COP 25 conference this week. The effects are already upon us and happening more quickly than predicted, while emissions continue to rise. We need to step it up in a big way. A major part of the solution is actually quite simple: stop burning fossil fuels as soon as possible. Not easy, but doable, given the political will and the right combination of technology, finance and regulations. 

At a high level, getting off of fossil fuels means, 1) transitioning electricity grids to renewable energy, 2) electrifying industry, particularly transportation and buildings, two of the biggest climate-polluting sectors, 3) reducing energy consumption, and 4) making the grid more “smart” – in other words, more flexible and responsive. These are not sequential actions, but need to happen in tandem. 

It’s easy to understand the first three – for example, replacing coal plants with hydroelectric, wind and solar; phasing out gas heat in new and existing buildings; and improving building insulation. Yet without the fourth – smartening up the grid – the transition to 100% renewable energy will be a lot more difficult and costly, since in many areas the electrical grid is not capable of accepting and efficiently distributing new energy supply, especially if it’s from intermittent sources like wind and solar. In Amsterdam and Barcelona, I met with a few people working to solve this problem. 

Catalunya Institute for Energy Research

On a sunny late November afternoon I rode my bike from the old city of Barcelona, to the modern office park 22@ district (a story in itself – see below), and the headquarters of the Catalunya Institute for Energy Research (IREC). Dr. Cristina Corchero and Dr. Jaume Salom, who are the Group Leaders for Energy Systems Analytics, and Thermal Energy and Building Performance, respectively, introduced me to their work, amid some 120 other scientists and engineers, working their magic with laptops and high tech testing labs.

Cristina explained that IREC was created in 2009, as an independent organization focused on renewable energy and innovation, with funding from the federal and provincial governments. It has two main sections: advanced materials for energy, including among others solar photovoltaics, fuel cells, and energy storage; and energy efficiency in systems, called the ECOS research unit. ECOS in turn focuses on three main areas: future energy grids; positive energy buildings and communities; and energy systems integration. There are a raft of projects underway in each of these areas, and many of them overlap. 

Here’s a video introducing their work:

Although we only had time to scratch the surface during my quick visit, Cristina and Jaume shared some examples of how their work is helping to make buildings, electric vehicles, and the electrical network “smarter”, by storing, sharing and giving energy back into the grid. How does this work? Two examples. 

Electric cars that “give back” 

It’s no secret that cars spend most of their time parked, sitting and doing nothing – in fact, about 80% of the time. This is a wasteful use for one of a family’s or a company’s most expensive assets. Electric cars need to be charged while they’re parked, but usually that only takes a small amount of time. Yet they have a feature that’s prized in the world of smarter and greener grids: storage

An electrical grid that’s based mostly on hydroelectricity, like in BC, has storage built-in, and it’s already pretty green. But in other areas – and eventually in BC too when new supply is needed – going green means adding more solar and wind (as they are the most cost-effective and sustainable) which, as everyone knows, only produce electricity when the sun shines and the wind blows. Battery storage integrated with wind and solar power plants is advancing rapidly and becoming more affordable. EVs offer a decentralized and low-cost way to store energy that can improve the resilience of the grid. In times of high demand – like when everyone comes home from work and turns on the lights and heat in their homes – EV batteries can feed some electricity back into the grid. 

As Cristina explained, this means that instead of adding more supply at the upstream end (often with significant costs and environmental impacts), we can make better use of the supply that’s already in the network, and incorporate more renewable energy. Once it becomes commonplace, vehicle owners could be paid for providing this service. 

I wondered how a homeowner can be sure there’s enough power in their car’s battery if it’s depleted from topping up the grid? Cristina replied that users can set rules, like a requirement for a full battery for the morning commute, or to setting a minimum charge level at any time of day, in case the car is needed for an emergency. Commercial fleets are simpler, since they have predictable schedules. 

Although this all requires a lot of engineering, Cristina said the bigger challenge is getting all the stakeholders on board, which can include utilities, building and electrical code regulators, and car and charging system manufacturers. To scale up, charging systems also need to be standardized, so they can all work on the same network; market and financial systems need to promote and reward participation; and the regulations need to allow a third party to aggregate the many small energy sources, for greater impact and efficiency. 

Netherlands getting charged up for public vehicle-to-grid

Public charging in Amsterdam (image by Lise)

The Netherlands is among the countries working to overcome some of these barriers. Sonja Munnix leads the electric mobility portfolio of the Netherlands Enterprise Agency (RVO). I originally met Sonja in Vancouver, and caught up with her while in Utrecht. Her group, which supports the federal climate and environment ministry (among others) is working to support the Netherlands’ commitment to allow only zero emission new vehicles to be sold by 2030.

About 90% of EVs on the road in the Netherlands today are “business cars” – commercial fleets and vehicles provided by employers for business use, and some portion of personal use with reduced tax rates that favour EVs. Sonja said there’s a lot of work ahead, and key success factors include providing support to municipalities to install public charging, and ensuring European and global systems are interoperable, such as they are in the Netherlands. This allows users to access charging with any charging card, and ensures the cars can “talk” to the grid in a consistent way. RVO’s research indicates about 1.7 million charge points will be needed to support the expected 1.9 million EVs on the roads by 2030. With this kind of new load, vehicle to grid (V2G) technology can play an important role. 

In 2017, Utrecht installed the first V2G public charging network with 20 charging points, and shortly 150 more will be added, at well used public locations. Earlier this year, the Dutch federal government announced a commitment for additional funding to expand the network with an additional 472 smart V2G chargers at charging plazas across 21 municipalities. Part of the broader European City-Zen project supporting smart cities, the project is also exploring “vehicle to office” charging, which could be linked with systems such as those being designed by IREC for buildings.  

Buildings that talk to the grid (and each other)

Smart building concept (source: IREC)

Worldwide, buildings account for 40% of annual GHG emissions globally and two-thirds of existing buildings will still be around in 2050. Like the EV transition, making buildings all-electric (and zero-cabon) is necessary to reduce emissions, but will strain the electrical grid unless it’s made more efficient and flexible. 

Jaume’s group at IREC is working on systems that allow buildings to dynamically interact with each other in a group or “district”, and with the grid. Just as cars can produce and store energy, so can buildings. Solar PV, wind turbines, and excess heat represent potential sources, while energy can be stored in the thermal mass of the building, water tanks, batteries for the energy system and EV batteries. Buildings can also be put to work, transformed from merely dumb consumers of energy to “prosumers” – producing and sharing heat and power as well as consuming it.  

In a project called SABINA H2020, the ECOS team is designing systems that link buildings with a decision-making algorithm that continuously monitors factors including comfort of the interior space, weather, the carbon content of electricity in the grid, energy price, and availability of energy within and among buildings. The algorithm in this case is programmed to choose and deliver the lowest-carbon energy at any point in time, without costing the user more (but stopping short of maximizing profit). The IREC researchers have “semi-virtual” labs where they run real equipment to simulate occupant behaviour, and monitor in real time.   

So far, the results of the testing are positive, showing there is the potential to reduce CO2 emissions without increasing costs, compared to a “dumb” building system. 

Conceptual sketch of smart building algorithm (source: IREC)

From Smart Buildings to Smart Cities 

Like all renewable energy technologies, the key is in scaling up as rapidly as possible. A handful of super smart buildings and EV chargers will only make a small dent in emissions, but at a large enough scale can make all the difference. 

Luís Gomez is the International Director of Barcelona de Serveis Municipal, and previously led the global Smart City Expo, and directed economic promotion and innovation with the City of Barcelona. Over coffee he shared some of his insights. 

With a new “activist mayor” in charge, Barcelona is keen to advance the green agenda. This includes taking more local control of the city’s energy, instead of leaving it up to the big utilities. The city also provides a centralized service for accessing and financing renewable energy that may not otherwise be available, including a property tax discount for installing solar power. For example, a start-up called Hola Luz offers 100% renewable energy (nation-wide, renewables made up 46% of supply in Spain in 2018). 

Urban renewal projects can help to accelerate smart energy as well as economic development through design. One example is Barcelona’s 22@ innovation district, initiated by the City to revitalise a 200 hectare rundown industrial area with a mixed use development focused on integrating industries and technology. IREC’s headquarters is among them, along with the iconic Diagonal Zero Zero tower, pictured below, as well as one of the world’s most sustainable office buildings (achieving the highest score in the LEED Platinum rating). Since 2000, the district has attracted about 3500 new businesses, many of them start-ups.

Diagonal Zero Zero in 22@, Barcelona (inage by Lise)

In Luis’s view city governments have an important role to play, to ensure such projects meet the needs of the community, rather than allowing corporations to drive the agenda. Branding can also be key to successful projects, to achieve both green and economic outcomes. Finally, he believes in sharing between cities around the world. It seems that Vancouver and Barcelona have much in common, including being port cities with international connections, prized for the climate, lifestyle and culture, and with progressive City governments. 

Putting it all together 

All this technology can be overwhelming for the average person (if you’re still reading, you are definitely not one of them!). Fortunately, a detailed understanding should not be necessary, just as we don’t really need to know how our smart phones work. Buildings, cars and devices will be designed to be highly efficient, to produce as well as consume energy, and will be capable of sharing it at a neighbourhood and city scale, reducing strain on the grid and allowing a full transition to renewables. 

This reflects a shift in design, from linear systems – resources in, waste out – and a presumption of unlimited supply, to circular, closed loop systems that can actually produce more than they consume. And that’s the magic sauce for real action on the climate crisis – shifting from being “less bad” to actually having a positive impact. This is what nature does all the time, we’ve just forgotten, in the haze of our addiction to fossil fuels.  

More Information: 

IREC research:

Barcelona Smart City and 22@