Cities, with their concentration of services, economic opportunity, mobility and social interaction, have proved endlessly attractive to humans.
Urbanisation – whether in the great metropoles of antiquity or the sprawling conurbations of today – has continued unabated for millennia, and by 2050, according to the United Nations, more than two thirds of humanity will be urbanised. In Europe, three in every four people live in cities, according to World Bank data.
But as we rethink metropolitan life for a new, post-pandemic and net-zero carbon age, city planners are having to reconsider cities from scratch – their purpose, their sustainability and their attractiveness.
Cities are energy-hungry, so the challenge of meeting citizens’ expectations to maintain their standard of living while progressively reducing the environmental impact of producing that energy is especially acute in conurbations.
However, that challenge also presents an opportunity, because those same citizens are now increasingly being co-opted by local authorities and energy utility companies to become the solution. The concept of ‘prosumers’, citizens who both produce and consume energy, is developing rapidly.
“Prosumers are currently leading the energy transition, which is providing new opportunities for renewable energy consumption, avoiding environmental pollution while offering self-sufficiency,” says Dr Johannes Slacik, a researcher at Johannes Kepler University in Linz, Austria.
“Even in Germany, where the sun shines on average much less than, for example, in Spain, one prosumer household with photovoltaic panels can provide for the energy needs of itself and one-and-a-half other households.”
Slacik’s work focuses on encouraging energy utilities to adopt new, horizontal relationships with their customers. He says that smaller, more nimble utilities are already building successful partnerships with those customers, based in part on a prosumer model, and that utilities prepared to show innovation and leadership will reap the rewards of the energy transition.
“It takes a lot for some energy utilities to give up their traditional top-down product distribution. Their existing business models are still largely focused on economic output and not on low-profit partnerships.”
Slacik is advising a EU-funded Horizon project, eCREW, which promotes household-utility cooperation, especially through prosumers active in community renewable energy webs, to boost energy efficiency.
This vision of partnership is also working effectively in another Horizon initiative, MAtchUP, a smart city project that develops innovative solutions for urban living, including in the energy sector, that can serve as models for the cities of the future.
“The classic supply direction of the energy industry, in which energy is always generated on one side and used on the other, is changing into an holistic system. This requires intelligent interaction, and private customers will take an active role,” says Alexander Haidan from SachsenEnergie, the largest municipal utility company in eastern Germany.
Dresden, which SachsenEnergie serves, is one of the three lighthouse cities in MAtchUP.
“We see our company today not only as an energy supplier but rather as an infrastructure service provider that considers the needs of our customers. For example, we are now offering energy consulting and photovoltaic planning and installations,” says.
Key to the company’s approach is both a determination to pioneer innovations that drive Dresden’s future as a smart city, and also to enable citizens to shape the energy transition by arming them with information tools that can maximise their energy efficiency.
The project is developing several partnership initiatives, including the District Future House, a model of renewable energy generation – using photovoltaic panels on the roof – and real-time consumption data visualisation that allow residents to take advantage of flexible tariffs based on shifting supply, demand and time.
Another example of this flexible, adaptable approach is the tenant electricity model, which allows renters, for example in social housing, to benefit from a shared generation, storage and consumption structure based on a solar-panel system, despite not owning their properties.
“This allows electrical energy that has been generated locally to be used locally, and encapsulates the management of contracts and partners, tariff structures, measurement concepts, invoicing and automated billing – integrated smart solutions.”
Valencia in southern Spain presents a different climate profile to Dresden, with mild winters and long, hot summers, but the need to promote renewable energy and efficiency in buildings is just as acute.
Las Naves, a social and urban innovation hub run by the city council, is also participating in MAtchUP, and is using the gritty fishing neighbourhood of Poblats Maritims as a test bed for its own energy-related initiatives.
“The objective is to reach nearly zero-energy buildings standards with both renovation and construction of new buildings, paying special attention to the passive and active elements,” says Laurie Barriol of Las Naves.
“We are also working to promote the installation of renewable energy facilities for the collective generation and self-consumption of electrical energy through renewable energy prosumer communities.”
Valencia, too, is placing emphasis on an inclusive and accessible energy transition through an integrated smart city digital platform, VLCi, which promotes citizen-led partnership across all aspects of Valencia’s smart city vision – a vision that includes being one of 100 European cities to be climate-neutral by 2030.
“It’s vital for us as promoters of social innovation to be close to the citizens by providing universal access to ICT services and, thus, eliminating the digital gap,” adds Barriol.
Smart cities hold much promise for the future if they can successfully respond to the demand for constant energy.
The ‘smart element of energy usage in cities is not only the way it is generated, but the way it is deployed, meeting users’ needs in the most efficient and environmentally friendly manner – and utilities have a central role in facilitating this switch.
Innovations in Dresden and Valencia developed through MAtchUP are breaking new ground, and could serve as a model for smart cities across Europe in the future.
Article by Stephen Jones
Cover photo by SachsenEnergie