Author: Richard Pallardy
The increasingly apparent effects of climate change have motivated EU countries to investigate a range of novel ways to reduce energy consumption and encourage sustainable alternatives to fossil fuels. Ecoregions have emerged as a promising and practical means of accomplishing both goals. The EU-funded R-ACES project has established a number of pilot projects—with notable successes in Nyborg, Denmark, Antwerp, Belgium, and Bergamo, Italy. All locations are crucial business hubs and thus provide scalable insights that might conceivably be implemented elsewhere.
“An ecoregion is an industrial area with surrounding infrastructure where excess energy flows can be exchanged,” explains Paul Robbrecht, project manager for the Provincial
Authority Antwerp (POM Antwerp). Ecoregions recycle excess hot and cold energy and emphasise the use of renewable energy sources.
District heating and cooling networks play a huge role in utilising this excess energy. These localised networks of pipes transfer heat generated by power production and other fossil-fuel intensive processes to buildings, allowing them to regulate their temperature without additional energy expenditure. The same process can use cold water chilled using energy from waste heat during the summer months.
“Companies don’t know what their neighbours are producing or what they are wasting. So, we have to bring them together in order to share their knowledge about the flow of energy,” adds Sergio Pinotti, an energy efficiency expert with Spinergy SRL who has been working with R-ACES on the Bergamo, Italy ecoregion.
R-ACES has developed a self-assessment tool that allows companies to collect data on their own waste energy and share it with neighbouring companies that may be able to use it. Thus, as much energy as possible is extracted from fossil fuel sources.
“Waste from one company can be an asset to another company that does something completely different,” he expounds. “The second user will not burn any more fossil fuels because they can find the energy inside the waste flow from the first user. If they share energy and knowledge, we can move further toward fossil fuel independence.”
Recycling heat can serve as a useful stopgap in reducing fossil fuel use as regions transition to fully renewable energy, such as solar and wind.
“The main share of energy consumption must be filled with renewable energy as much as possible. Major steps can be taken in the short term, for example by providing the large roofs of commercial buildings with photovoltaic panels. Wind energy also plays a major role, although obtaining permits remains a major issue,” Robbrecht says. “By increasing the use of renewable energy in a region, the impact of the companies on the environment decreases, residual flows can possibly be exchanged between companies and the environment, and the quality of life of a region increases.”
The transition toward these collaborative energy-saving methods has not been easy. Facilitating agreements between the entities involved is perhaps one of the biggest hurdles according to Charlotte Baumgartner, project manager at Energy Cluster Denmark.
“Contracts between an industry and a municipality and the district heating company to assure that we actually recover the waste heat require trust,” she confides. R-ACES has developed a legal tool that provides a contract template to get this process going.
Once the agreements have been established, getting the infrastructure to actually transfer heat into place presents an additional challenge. She and her team have been taking the lessons learned in establishing the Nyborg ecoregion and applying them to a new one in Sönderjylland, in the southern part of Denmark.
They have created digital maps of the region, allowing them to visualise the energy grid. This has helped them to identify which industries might be producing surplus heat and cross-reference that data against how much heat is produced seasonally. Using a sophisticated data management system, they can determine where to allocate that additional energy depending on variable climatic factors.
“We are able to create business cases for each single industry and its connection to the grid,” Baumgartner enthuses. “This results in areas where there’s very little CO2 emission.”
While she and her colleagues have refined the process for instituting these initiatives on a local level, she notes that doing so on a larger scale will present further obstacles to setting up energy cooperation projects. “From an international perspective, there are legal, financial, and technical barriers,” she cautions.
Baumgartner urges the development of more generalised tools and technologies that can be disseminated across borders and easily deployed regardless of local legislation and infrastructural limitations.
Robbrecht adds that a clear legal framework that encourages companies to work towards carbon neutrality in a financially feasible way without sacrificing competitiveness will go a long way toward ensuring the development of broader energy conservation networks. He also believes that the availability of green hydrogen, carbon capture, utilisation, and storage (CCU) and large-scale energy storage options will impact the feasibility of ecoregions elsewhere.
Above all, “we need to exchange information,” Pinotti implores. “Alone we can move faster, but together we can work longer. We need to come together in order to improve the energy efficiency and environmental sustainability of our manufacturing processes.”