Energy solutions that could rescue the climate target for the construction sector

Electric cars and the Internet could have a major bearing on how we meet the target in the EU Directive for nearly zero-energy buildings from 2020. 

Around 40 per cent of our energy consumption comes from our buildings. That is why the EU Building Energy Directive requires all new buildings to be nearly zero-energy from 2020. That is just two years away – and the clock is ticking.

If we take Norway as an example, we have to reduce energy consumption by 50-75% from today’s levels, depending on the building type and ‘own energy’ production, if we are to meet the zero target by 2020. 

At the same time, we know that Norway is among the European countries with the strictest energy standards and regulations for buildings, along with Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands. With this in mind, the clock is ticking even faster.  

Fortunately, there is a lot happening on the technology and energy front that could help us towards our goal. 

Here are some of the trends that will affect us in the coming years – and which could play a key role in our pursuit of the zero vision.

1. Vehicle to grid: electric cars as energy storage points

Increased urbanisation has led to a host of new development and expansion projects. These bring huge untapped potential in the underground car parks.

Some of Oslo’s new urban development projects provide up to 500 parking spaces for electric cars. We know that all cars are parked around 95% of the time. Vehicle to grid technology (V2G) enables electric cars to store energy. The smart grid can then ‘borrow’ energy from your car when it is not in use, in order to distribute it via the grid.

At a smart charging station, you can notify the system that you do not need the vehicle fully charged until four hours later. In the meantime, your car can be used as an energy store for neighbouring buildings which are connected to the smart grid, and it can distribute the energy it has already stored when consumption is at its peak. 

The automotive industry reports that Toyota, Nissan and other Japanese carmakers are currently very interested in V2G technology. The technology is on its way, and experts say it could be available to private individuals within five years. However, it requires standardisation in terms of data protection and ownership.

Who owns the battery in your car if someone is profiting from you sharing it? Moreover, there are obvious security aspects in ‘opening’ your car, which has now become quite literally a big computer. This was a major topic at industry conferences such as the IEC this year, and car manufacturers and grid owners are discussing quite intensively how to resolve it.

2. The entry of the smart grid

If we are to achieve our energy targets, the Internet will play a much bigger role than it does today. One example is that the Internet of Things (IoT) has properly penetrated the real estate sector.

But what does this mean in practice? An example is seen at Otto Nielsens veg 12 in Trondheim – an office complex which is well on the way to implementing ‘next generation’ energy solutions. Complex solar power installations cover the roof surfaces, and the surplus heat from the Bluetooth producer in one building heats the offices in the neighbouring block. All energy consumption and production are precisely measured. The electric grid, sensors and the Internet are all interconnected.

Measuring energy consumption is important for machine learning, so that at a later stage we can allow the data to manage the optimum operation of the building. The information flow provides all the knowledge we need on where the energy production and needs are, so that we reap the maximum benefit. The mix of electric grid and Internet – which the smart grid represents – is on its way.

3. Smart electric meters: First step towards the smart grid

Data collection on consumption and consumption patterns across the grid will form the basis for tomorrow’s grid and energy solutions. Smart electric meters collecting this data are essential to phasing in smart grid solutions.

Norway is among the first countries to introduce smart meters, known as AMS meters. From the end of 2018, Norwegian households will have no choice – they will all have to replace their old meters with the new ‘smart’ units. 

The aim is to smooth out the 24-hour pattern of energy consumption, and shift consumption to times of day where the demand is less, prices are lower and production higher – and perhaps more sustainable. For example, there is a relatively long period of low consumption in the daytime when most people are at work. In this period, solar energy and ‘cheap’ mains electricity could be stored until the next peak in consumption. 

As things stand, private individuals have limited scope for optimising their energy consumption according to this model, but for large buildings and neighbourhoods, the potential – both economic and environmental – is huge. 

Sharing energy consumption data will be important if we are to get the full benefit from the smart electricity readings. A year after the AMS meters were introduced in Norway, grid owners have been reluctant to share their data. Ironically enough, we also know that technological development moves much faster when data is shared. In recent years we have seen clear examples to show that companies that share data the most also reap the greatest benefit from this. 

4. Integrated solar power: Energy production in the skeleton of the building

One of Norway’s most exciting solar power installations is now being planned at the Hospital for Children and Young People in Bergen. The plan is for window areas totalling around 1,100 m² to be made of transparent thin-film solar cells. But it is not certain that this will still be the solution when the building goes up.

Technological development in the solar cell field is moving so quickly that the sustainable buildings of today are being planned for technologies that do not exist yet. Right now, thin-film solar cells are the latest system, which gives the best result. But if other types of solar cell with better properties should be fully developed before the building goes up, the project group will consider using them. 

There is a lot of research into third-generation solar cells; quantum dot solar cells, organic solar cells, perovskite solar cells and dye-sensitised solar cells. These could offer greater efficiency than today’s commercial technologies, as well as lower production costs. 

One of the most exciting technologies is translucent solar concentrators. These let through the visible spectrum of sunlight while the long and short wavelengths are captured by membranes in the glass. This makes the solar cells almost completely transparent but with an efficiency of 10%.

When these technologies are market-ready, it will be much easier to reduce energy consumption towards the EU’s zero vision.

When these technologies are market-ready, it will be much easier to reduce energy consumption towards the EU’s zero vision.
Christian Olsen Rendall Project engineer, COWI

But will we make it by 2020?

It is by no means impossible, but we will need ambitious and active investors who dare to put their money into solutions that are not yet economically viable at the time of writing. Competitors will see the trend, and will follow after. 

We need a new generation of grid owners to shift from their traditional and established role to become active, fearless and innovative operators who dare to prioritise innovation even though the financial models may still seem uncertain. 

Finally, we need companies, builders, grid owners and developers who can see the value in sharing data. Some of the data is open, but it is still a long way round to get at it. This slows development. 

These players also need to collaborate: it is when we connect systems, sensors, buildings and larger areas together that we will see the biggest results. Combined with the biggest technological advances in renewable energy and connection to the internet, we will be well on our way.

Get in contact

Christian Rendall
M.Sc. Fornybar energi og elektrifisering
Buildings Oslo, Norway

Tel: +47 45280177

Get in contact

Harald Hammer