A new report funded by the Dutch government finds that microgrid technologies could make a local “techno-economy” 90 percent self-sufficient, through the decentralised sharing of energy at the local level between multiple households.
The new approach could even pave the way for “100 percent self-sufficiency in power, heat, and water, and 50 percent self-sufficiency in food production”, according to the report’s author, energy systems engineer Florijn de Graaf.
If optimized properly, microgrids could play a pivotal role in supporting efforts to transition to renewable energy systems and meet climate targets, finds the report published by Netherlands-based energy systems company Metabolic. The report was funded by the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs and the Netherlands Enterprise Agency.
Under the Paris Agreement, the Dutch government has pledged to drop its carbon dioxide emissions by 80-95 percent by 2050.
Reaching that goal will require an extraordinary level of effort by any standard. But the use of microgrids—decentralised energy grids that intelligently balance the local supply and demand of distributed clean energy resources—could avoid the need for massive spending on infrastructure upgrades.
FROM DUMB TO SMART
According to the new report, titled New Strategies For Smart Integrated Decentralised Energy Systems, by 2050 almost half of all EU households will produce renewable energy. Of these, more than a third will participate in a local energy community. In this context, the microgrid opportunity could be a game changer.
The report describes microgrids as the end result the combination of several technological trends, namely, rooftop solar, electric vehicles, heat pumps and batteries for storage. The key is that these technologies are decentralized—they can easily be owned by consumers and cooperatives in local systems.
“As time progresses, costs go down and climate awareness goes up, more and more people will start owning one or more of these technologies,” de Graaf told me.
Currently, he said, the way in which we use these technologies is, in his words, “dumb.” We simply attach solar panels, heat pumps, and electric vehicles to the grid for their own separate purposes. This dramatically increases the load on the local grid, requiring costly infrastructure upgrades to sustain the system.
This is where what the Metabolic report calls “SIDE” systems come in – standing for “Smart Integrated Decentralised Energy.” SIDE systems provide a way to intelligently integrate different technologies to balance supply and demand locally in a way that prevents high costs.
“This integration should be done through an intelligent energy management system, that will charge your car when the sun is shining, and export excess electricity production to your neighbour's heat pump: a smart-grid,” said de Graaf. “Ultimately, this smart, decentralised integration democratises energy production and consumption, and allows consumers and cooperatives to take control of their own energy supply, which will help facilitate the renewable energy transition from the bottom-up.”
THE 'EARTHSHIP' MODEL
The Metabolic report’s findings are based on real-world data extracted from four cases in Amsterdam. One the cases that stood out is the Ardehuizen, a near self-sufficient ecovillage consisting of 23 “Earthship” houses.
“By using mostly recycled, locally sourced, and low-impact construction materials, the Earthship design focuses on minimising the ecological footprint of its inhabitants,” explains the report. The systems in place at the Ardehuizen include heat pumps, electric boilers, solar thermal and photovoltaic panels, wood stoves and grid connections.
The report found that the Ardehuizen’s energy system was overall “significantly cheaper in the long run than a conventional grid powered energy system.”
But that was without installing a SIDE system. The report simulated what would happen if the Ardehuizen implemented an intelligently managed microgrid with more sophisticated local supply and demand mechanisms.
These would entail a whole suite of interconnected technologies: a community battery storage system, smart meters which actively monitor the entire system, air-to-water heat pumps intelligently managed according to actual demand, local energy trading between the houses so they can exchange surplus, more electric vehicles, the use of Combined Heat and Power (CHP) units which generate both heat and electricity using biomass, and the installation of a local district heating network to distribute heat to multiple houses.
Of all the cases studies, the Ardehuizen showed the most promise, reaching “an almost fully (89 percent) self-sufficient and techno-economically feasible energy system.”
Applying this model means it is entirely possible to overcome the current incapacity of the grid infrastructure—which in the Netherlands can handle the input of only 25-30 percent of intermittent renewable energy. Using SIDE systems, this percentage can be increased dramatically to as much as around 50-75 percent, de Graaf explained.
Such results, he added, are easily scalable and replicable to the rest of the world. There would be limits though, depending on national policy and regional factors like electricity prices, feed-in tariffs, wind speed, solar radiation and legal regulations. Those could be a help or a hindrance. But de Graaf was optimistic:
“With the unstoppable emergence of electric vehicles, solar panels, heat pumps and batteries, we will start seeing more and more of these microgrids emerge,” he said. “The decentralisation of our energy system is therefore an unstoppable force that will have a big impact on our renewable energy future.”
Still, this could well represent only the beginning of what is possible. The end-goal of the Metabolic team’s technology research is a concept called “Smarthoods.”
The project aims to design an urban system which integrates decentralised food, water and energy flows in order to create a nearly fully self-sufficient neighbourhood.
It works based on the principle of “circularity”—recycling water, materials, and waste as much as possible within the system.
“Our current simulations show it should be possible to become 100 percent power, heat and water, and 50% food self-sufficient,” de Graaf said. “Living in a Smarthood will instantly reduce one’s ecological footprint by near 40 percent. We envision it as the circular, resilient neighborhood of the future, that solves many of the 21st century’s greatest challenges.”
The simulations demonstrate the potential viability of this model—the next step, which the de Graaf and his team are working on now, is to execute it on the ground in the Netherlands, and, from there, to encourage neighborhoods around the world to take it up.