The world around us is changing at an unprecedented pace because technology is changing at an unprecedented pace. New innovations are applied in record time, causing major changes in all areas of life, our sector included. Did you know that a staggering one million new devices come online every hour, collecting data and potentially interacting with each other? Currently only a fraction of the collected data, less than 1%, is actually analysed, but this is rapidly changing too.
The district energy sector is not a first mover when it comes to changing our ways of working and accepting new, disruptive technologies. Today, we still build and operate district energy systems almost the same way we did ten years ago. Consequently, productivity and prices have not improved significantly. This will not be the case going forward.
Digitalisation will accelerate change, allowing us to provide sustainable energy at competitive prices and boosting growth in the sector. The EU Horizon 2020 project Heat Roadmap Europe shows the share of district energy could increase from today’s 12% average to 50%, contributing significantly to a cost-efficient energy transition. Digitalisation can help unleash this potential by facilitating the shift to modern, fourth generation district energy systems.
The Internet of Things will give us new means to gather and evaluate huge amounts of data — from energy meters to sensors in apartments and valves in the network. Artificial Intelligence, meanwhile, will allow us to use that data in a meaningful way, for example to predict the energy consumption in the buildings we heat. We can use these predictions to match heat supply and demand perfectly at any given time, optimising temperatures, flows and pressures in the network, and shaving peak loads.
The benefits are significant. Existing solutions can yield 10-20% in energy savings, cut peak loads by 20% and save up to 30% in maintenance costs. That means district heating utilities can shut down expensive peak boilers, connect more customers to their network, and free up resources to invest in new sustainable energy sources.
Digitalisation will also facilitate the integration of new energy sources, including waste heat from supermarkets and fluctuating renewable electricity. Networks will become much more complex and will need to manage a multitude of energy sources and storage facilities with varying availability. The time when one central heating plant supplies a city is over. The decentralisation and diversification of energy sources will only increase in the future, to the point where every building connected to a district heating system will be able to receive as well as to provide heat to the system. The interaction and integration of the district heating system with other sectors, like electricity and transport, will also grow.
This complexity can only be managed with a lot of data and computer intelligence that allows for real-time, 24-7 decision making on which energy to use where, charge and discharge storage. The EnergyLab Nordhavn project in Copenhagen is a good example of how it would work.
Technological changes will go hand in hand with the emergence of new business models. While energy efficiency improvements will mean a shift to sell less, increased transparency and control on both sides of the meter will enable new services for utilities, such as the energy management of buildings, monitoring, and even the optimisation and maintenance of buildings’ heating systems.
Furthermore, district energy customers will turn into prosumers, as is already happening in the electricity sector. Utilities will have to offer solutions for that as well. These will include decentralised networks that use blockchain technology to link customers, prosumers and producers, and enable an “exchange” of heat and/or cold in a smart, safe and transparent way.
The technology trends and opportunities for our sector are clear: improved efficiency, greater flexibility, reduced emissions, better comfort and cost-effective operation and maintenance awaits. But how do we get ready for a revolution?
By embracing it and making sure we implement it successfully. To do so, we need to look beyond our own sector and work together: with other sectors, with building owners, with industry, electricity operators and more. We need to ensure synergies and implement solutions that are compatible with each other to create one integrated smart energy system. Digitalisation is blurring the lines between the physical and the virtual world, and District Energy 4.0 will see new stakeholders added to the traditional mix.
We also need to work with policy makers to create the right framework to accelerate the implementation of digital solutions across the entire energy value chain, including in buildings and grids. Policy must incentivise the installation of smart building automation and control that can interact with the thermal grid (not just the electricity grid) for demand-response. Policy must also help manage risks and ensure that new technologies are resilient against cyber security threats and sensitive data is protected.
District Energy 4.0 is just around the corner. Let’s harness our innovative power and shape not just our sector, but the entire energy system.
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