Opinion - 06/September/2022

Decarbonisation through digitalisation: The key role of smart city districts in boosting energy efficiency

Smart buildings are energy-saving, sustainable buildings. Clustered into smart city districts, they play a crucial role in climate protection. The adaptive, open-source technology to make this possible is already available, says Matthias Rebellius of Siemens Smart Infrastructure

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of FORESIGHT Climate & Energy


Decarbonising and digitising the existing building stock is taking too long

Decarbonisation comes with a simple truth: kilowatt-hours that are not consumed do not have to be produced. They do not have to be stored or distributed. And when we are saving energy to avoid carbon emissions, this becomes all the more critical.

Efficiency is key, especially in the building sector. Buildings account for 40% of global energy consumption. But the average building still wastes up to 50% of the energy it consumes. Equipping or retrofitting a building with digitalised, networked and intelligent systems can reduce its ecological footprint by up to 80%.

Efficiency is more than modern insulation and state-of-the-art heating systems. We need smart building technologies and efficient building operations if we are going to move the needle on decarbonisation, especially in brownfield applications. A huge amount of leverage is being wasted. Buildings should—and can—contribute much more to the global decarbonisation effort.

Yet we must not focus just on buildings. We have to take into account synergies and efficiency gains on the community and city levels.



Each digitalised building is part of a much bigger picture: a networked community of electricity-prosuming, optimised buildings become an energy self-sufficient, smart urban district. And these net-zero urban districts are the backbone of zero-carbon cities. Cities that can ensure the healthy, sustainable and safe living conditions that we owe to future generations.

Imagine local renewable energy generation—most likely photovoltaics installed on neighbourhood rooftops—feeding into a district-level microgrid that ensures autonomous power supply.

Volatility in energy generation and consumption is balanced out by a smart energy management system. It juggles real-time demand fluctuations, adapts to the changing and increasingly challenging ambient conditions. And it keeps track of the available e-mobility charging capacity.

Digitalisation in the form of Internet of Things sensors and cloud technology make it possible to collect real-time insights and analytics about building usage, occupancy and ambient conditions. In conjunction, intelligent building controls and room automation solutions significantly improve energy efficiency as well as the well-being of building occupants.

Crucially, this is a picture of urban communities that puts people (and our planet) front and centre. The technology is, to stay in the metaphor, the high-quality paint that urban planners, architects, OEMs work with to create a sustainable, decarbonised future.

Fundamentally, the approach is holistic: microgrids and buildings that leverage data and artificial intelligence for the local generation of renewable energy, for electricity, heat, and resource optimisation, and for a powerful e-mobility charging infrastructure.

Only truly open platforms and ecosystems of customers, partners, and cross-industry players will generate the unprecedented momentum needed to tackle the challenges we are facing.




Humanity is building like never before. According to one estimate, cities need to add 13,000 buildings every day through 2050 to keep up with global population growth. These buildings will also need energy. A sad fact: only a tiny minority of buildings and grids today are modern, digitalised and net zero. At the current rate, it will take almost 100 years to decarbonise them all.

We do not have that time. This is why we must enable buildings to cooperate and interact. To create smart districts based on open-source solutions that are flexible and can adapt to future requirements. By inviting all stakeholders into an ecosystem where resources are shared, customers combine the right technological solutions for long-term and sustainable growth. `

Energy- and resource-efficient urban districts have a crucial role to play in the fight against global heating. That efficacy will be urgently needed as the urban population increases from 4.5 billion today to 7 billion in 2050.

It is the precondition that enables the switch to renewable power as the world seeks to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. As global decision makers and leaders it is our task to ensure we are moving towards a climate neutral future and we need to do it quickly. •


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