Updated: Sep 24
2020 presents new challenges and opportunities for regional decarbonisation.
In providing citizens with a sense of security and direction, governments help them to identify, use and share resources. Meeting the energy requirements of communities in today’s connected, fossil-fuel dependent world is, however, a complex challenge which relies on a wide network of external actors and systems. This is all fine provided that the energy can be sourced as close to the demand as possible, that the supply is reliable and that it is of a sustainable nature. Anything besides this implies risk.
In European countries, this security risk is being addressed in a number of ways. Actions include policy such as the recent Green Agenda, a blueprint for sustainable economic recovery and future industrial growth which has been approved by EU countries. This includes the least energy secure countries like Austria and Ireland (which each import 65% of their energy needs) and the more secure ones such as Sweden (which is 75% self-sufficient). At the wider bloc level, energy security involves the alignment of national policy and regulations and the interconnection of markets. At the national level it involves the development of comprehensive National Energy and Climate Plans to guide decarbonisation activity. Meanwhile, at the regional level, it involves the modernisation of internal energy infrastructure. Amongst governments, the priority is that all of this will be achieved in a least-disruptive, least-cost manner which will in the process bolster their images as green, efficient and forward-thinking countries.
Remote working adds extra urgency
Today's large-scale remote working experiment which has, on an indefinite basis, changed the energy consumption profiles of regions. The redistribution of energy supply towards countless energy inefficient home/make-shift workspaces does more than make irrelevant the efficiencies of now-under-utilised modern building spaces. It also increases the wider reliance on more readily available fossil fuel energy imports, which, for governments, means increased emissions, breached targets and larger non-compliance fines from the EU. For the more vulnerable members of society, it presents a greater risk of energy poverty, which results in a range of physiological problems: including increased levels of depression, malnutrition, health outcomes, as well as reduced concentration and productivity. Since this is a risk to both individuals and the community, securing access to affordable, reliable and sustainable energy supplies (especially in the face of climatic extremes) becomes a key priority for government.
Back to the drawing board
For governments, local ones in particular, solving these challenges and greening the energy supply chain loop starts with better understanding these much-changed energy demand patterns. In particular, this process involves identifying synergies for efficiencies at the local level and better orchestrating connections between supply and demand. The successes within more extreme climatic regions - such as Scandinavia - provide ideas on how this can be achieved. District Heating networks which transport waste heat from industrial buildings to homes which may otherwise rely on conventional onsite fossil fuel heating systems are a good example (as are the equivalent District Cooling Systems). And where it is not possible to bring the heat and energy to consumers, consumers can be empowered to generate their own onsite using solar, wind, static heat pump and other technologies.
Rewiring regional systems
In re-imagining regional energy systems for the post-pandemic world, we need to see them as extensions of our human selves. These systems consist of independent yet inter-related components of a wider nervous system - nodes and networks manifesting themselves as buildings and infrastructure, with flows of energy representing natural thermoregulation functions and responses.
Once we understand how carbon-dependent cities are ‘wired’ on the wider macro levels it is thereby possible to design planning mechanisms which enable these networks to be rewired securely - physically, through infrastructure upgrades, as well as digitally for ongoing monitoring and reporting purposes. In doing so, it should also be possible to create, align and future-proof appropriate policy, market and regulatory mechanisms, and to identify the least-cost, least-friction and least-risk path to decarbonisation.
The author: Niall Conway is the manager of the Regional Energy Demand Analysis Portal (REDAP) research project. The project is focused on standardising a process for energy demand analysis in the building and transportation sectors across distinct European regions. Please send us an email if you wish to learn more about REDAP/engage with the research.
The content and views expressed in this post are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinion of the ERA-Net SES initiative. Any reference given does not necessarily imply the endorsement by ERA-Net SES