Green energy digitalisation
Using 100% renewable energy by 2050: it might sound ambitious, but for Stefan Lodeweyckx, founder and CEO of the green-energy company Enervalis, tackling climate change requires big thinking.
"The 100% target is definitely possible," he declares. "The world must commit to a maximal green-energy future."
There is no shortage of research from academics, government agencies and non-profit organisations to back this up. In 2015, Mark Jacobson, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University, released a detailed and widely shared report that showed how the US could use 100% renewable energy by 2050.
But challenges remain ahead - something Lodeweyckx is more than willing to accept. Chief among them, he says, is the "high mismatch between supply and demand". Solar and wind power - the main sources of green energy - can be variable and unpredictable, which is something that existing electrical grids struggle to deal with.
"The mismatch means the total cost of green energy to society may be higher than a fossil-fuel-based society," says Lodeweyckx.
How can this challenge be overcome? While there are a number of different solutions already on the market, Enervalis believes that the key is digitisation or what Lodeweyckx calls the 'internet of energy'. This means leveraging a number of tools, such as smart meters, and developing new connected devices by using the internet of things.
"Our mission, within the goal of using 100% green energy by 2050, is to provide the mass market with software tools and an operating system to help them go fully renewable," Lodeweyckx explains.
In industries like telecoms, the concept of digitalisation is nothing new. But when Lodeweyckx first founded Enervalis six years ago, he said few believed a software start-up was the key to unlocking the future potential of green energy.
"Everyone said I was crazy and that this wouldn't turn into a commercially viable business," Lodeweyckx states. "Now there are so many start-ups popping up and you have a blockchain - everyone is asking 'How do I get in on this?'. People are convinced that this is going to start happening and that they need to get investing."
Despite many companies working on green-energy solutions for the 'smart grid', there remains a lot of work to be done, Lodeweyckx adds.
"There are a of lot pilot studies and research going on at the moment, but a true mass-scale platform is not yet there," he says. "At the end of many years of research, smart meters have brought only around 1.5-2.0% energy savings, which is very marginal. We are really at the first stage of digitisation."
At the core of Enervalis's offering is the SmartPowerSuite, an operating system that uses vast amounts of sensory data that is combined with AI to predict production, consumption, prices and flexibility. For substations and network operators, this can help to minimise capacity constraints. It can also help to bring down energy bills for consumers.
"By using a smart, digitised solution you can get much finer, granular data about energy consumption," says Lodeweyckx. "You can then start learning from that data, forecasting behaviour, consumption, production and flexibility."
One concrete example of this, according to Lodeweyckx, is a heat pump. A normal building management system will tend to use static rules without considering different variables from occupancy, and the physics of the building through to current and future weather conditions.
"It therefore does a very sub-optimal job on energy control and management," affirms Lodeweyckx. "By digitising that process and using AI to learn from the data, you can reduce the energy consumption of a building without jeopardising comfort for the end user. Our tools, depending on the configuration, can save anywhere between 5.0-15.0% on an energy bill."
A new focus on social housing
Enervalis is now using its expertise in 'energy-clever buildings' in the social housing sector. In Europe, there are around 25 million social houses; most were built after the Second World War between the 1950s and '70s.
These houses have been designed for people on lower incomes, but over the years they have become increasingly inefficient from an energy perspective. In many cases, this means that tenants are paying as much as €350 a month for electricity.
"The outflow of money that these people are spending on energy is now almost the same as they are spending on rent," observes Lodeweyckx. "These buildings must be transformed into something that is energy efficient."
In the Netherlands, the government recently put forward an ambitious target to make their 2.6 million social housing stock energy neutral by 2050. The buildings will be renovated using solar panels that produce as much energy as they consume.
"It is what they call 'zero on the meter'. They will have solar panels, which are self-sufficient on a yearly basis, as well as energy-efficient heat pumps, ventilation and insulation systems," explains Lodeweyckx.
Without intelligence systems, Lodeweyckx says that there will be a mismatch between supply and demand.
"In the summer, you have a community of 200 houses suddenly producing 600kW to 1.2 MW of solar without much consumption," he adds. "This is a major mismatch that those communities have not been designed for. The mid-voltage operator will then have to invest heavily in the cables and substations - and someone will have to bare the cost of all of this network operation."
As part of an EU consortium driven by Royal BAM Group - one of the largest construction companies in Europe - Enervalis will be deploying its SmartPowerSuite in the Netherlands' renovation project. The company aims to transform the residential building sector into something green, sustainable, zero energy and cost-effective.
"We have come into the picture by capturing electrical and thermal data, occupancy information and other types of sensory information from within houses. We then use that to certify that a house is producing the amount of electrical and thermal energy that it is supposed to, which builds awareness among the tenants. Secondly, we feed the data into algorithms that can forecast consumption, production and flexibility. This makes everything much more energy efficient," Lodeweyckx explains.
This principle can then be extended to cover the communities of several buildings that are linked to a single grid transformer.
"The trick with these big buildings is that we are in the position to treat groups of between 200-300 houses as one aggregated customer," says Lodeweyckx. "Based on automatic triggers from a mid-voltage operator, we are using the flexibility within that community to avoid congestion, therefore avoiding investments in the network. Again, it is about saving cost for the end customer."
Enervalis has also developed a smart charging service for electric vehicles (EVs) that uses EV owner profiles, use patterns, charging infrastructure, and sun and wind forecasts. This can help to maximise local green energy use, electrical connection capacity and to minimise charging costs.
While the ability to save consumers and businesses money is a prominent feature of all of Enervalis's solutions, Lodeweyckx does not lose sight of the primary goal: battling climate change.
An engineer by background, he was involved in a number of different industries, from software and hardware IT to telecoms, before starting his own company.
"After about 17 years of working in many places, I reflected that I had done a lot of technological stuff, but always with the intention of getting money out of people's pockets," he says. "Now my goal is about making a positive, social impact in green energy. It is the mission we have at Enevalis and it is why I started the company nearly five years ago. Today, that very personal aim has translated into something much bigger," Lodeweyckx adds.
It is an attitude that he says others would do well to consider, as the world transitions into an economy driven by renewable energy.
"Going for a green-energy society in the long run means that everyone needs to get involved," he states. "From the small buildings to the big buildings, from small flats to large flats, everyone will have a role to play."