In December, BUILD UP visited the Intelligent Buildings fair during the European Utility Week 2016. Many companies put their smart and intelligent technologies on display. Will these benefit energy efficiency in buildings?
‘My grandparents used to grow food in their own garden. I think we are going back to this. And we will generate our own energy, too’, says Boyan, an ambitious graduate visiting the European Utility Week, looking ahead to what future homes will be like.
Homes are increasingly equipped with renewable energy technology. Globally, rooftop solar power capacity more than tripled between 2010 and 2014, from 30 GW to 100 GW. This is enough to cover the electricity demand of about 30 million households.
‘The role of buildings has changed’, says Oliver Rapf of the Buildings Performance Institute Europe at the European Utility Week. ‘In the past, buildings were simply end-use devices supplied with heating, cooling and electricity. Now they turn into systems that also produce energy.’
In addition to home energy generation, smart technologies allow for the monitoring and regulation of a home’s energy consumption and production. ‘New technology allows us to modulate that and digitalisation gives us remote control’, says Rapf. ‘We’re moving away from “dumb” end-use facilities to micro energy hubs.’
Utilities are looking with interest to this smart technology, because it allows the coordination between peaks of energy demand, the intermittent supply of renewable energy and traditional ‘baseload’ energy.
An example of how utilities make use of smart technology in homes was recently reported in the Netherlands. As part of a test operation, a utility remotely switched off appliances in a number of households in the Dutch city of Heerhugowaard to better coordinate electric boilers, heat pumps and solar panels. The residents did not notice the intervention.
Where such operations might have seemed futuristic in the past, they show that ‘smart’ is on its way to becoming a reality. ‘I see more and more industry players turning this buzzword into a business case,’ adds Oliver Rapf. Walking around at the European Utility Week exhibition, he notices the market uptake of the technology. ‘I see that companies are embracing smart buildings.’
European Utility Week displays a wide array of tools and apps, allowing for the real-time monitoring and remote regulation of domestic electricity, water and gas consumption. Many of the technologies are available through online interfaces or smartphone apps for home owners’ convenience: ‘smart’ and ‘intelligent’ often just means ‘convenient’ and ‘comfortable’.
Beside convenience, there is the question of whether smart technology also benefits energy efficiency. Christiane Egger, Deputy Manager of the Energy Agency of Upper Austria, insists that sustainability and energy efficiency are not neglected as part of the smart homes concept. ‘Intelligent homes are efficient, sustainable and digital’, she says during a panel discussion at the European Utility Week.
An example of how digital tools can help save energy in homes was reported this month by the Dutch broadcasting organisation NOS. Where a million installed smart meters were expected to make average savings of 3.5% per household, they remained stuck at 1%.
Key to this deficit was the absence of a display, making the smart meter ‘a computer without a keyboard and screen’. A display makes residents immediately aware of how their behaviour affects their energy consumption. And that makes it possible to prevent wasting energy.
Resident Marco Westenbrink explained the convenience of the display to NOS: ‘You can monitor your gas and electricity consumption extremely well.’ For Westenbrink, saving energy has become a kind of sport. ‘Are there any unnecessary lights switched on? All those computers, do they happen to be charging? Or what about all those useless adapters that consume electricity?’
Urgently needed: a business model
Whether consumers across Europe will start saving energy thanks to smart technology depends largely on their interest, whether they are willing to invest in it and, most importantly, whether the industry finds the right business model to make it profitable for them.
Several vendors at the Intelligent Buildings fair explain that their main customers manage large corporate buildings where even small energy savings mean significant cuts in costs. For small households, energy savings are too small to pay back investments in their technology. Besides, digital tools are sometimes too complicated for the average customer. And in a tiny apartment, one does not need a tool to oversee energy consumption: one can see and feel it.
Finding a business model to make smart energy saving technology profitable for households is a major challenge, says Christiane Egger of OÖ Sparverband. 'We need to find a business case where energy service companies gain from letting others save a little.’
Find out more about the European Utility Week at www.european-utility-week.com.
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