At ten locations spread all across Flanders, the basic building blocks for the energy system of tomorrow are emerging. One of these is Thor Park in Genk, a local energy community where VITO/EnergyVille is already experimenting with an innovative energy environment itself. In the ROLECS project, the roll-out of these ‘LECs’ (Local Energy Communities) is being thoroughly examined and tested.

Based on the European regulations around sustainable energy, the energy transition is not only being steered in the direction of more active individual end users who are also producers, but also towards so-called energy communities. These ‘Local Energy Communities’ or ‘LECs’ generate local sustainable energy and align their consumption to this, assisted in some cases by storage systems such as batteries. They may form an important component of the affordable and sustainable energy system of the future. For example, LECs can promote the local integration and exchange of renewable energy, help to bear the economic and social costs of the energy infrastructure and create new business opportunities.

New energy applications

But before fully-fledged LECs can be rolled out, all the facets – after all, this involves a brand new concept – must be well-studied and documented. Yes, at a technical level – by searching for the optimum link between local power production and delivery to the grid, for example – but the economic, legal, social and social domains are just as important. This is all part of the Flemish ROLECS project, which is supported by VLAIO via Flux50, the Flemish spearhead cluster for energy innovation. The Flemish SME Think-e is responsible for coordinating the project. ROLECS stands for Roll-Out of Local Energy Communities and will run until summer 2021.

Although the project has largely arisen at the request of Flemish industry, ROLECS still has much ground to cover before a potential market introduction. ‘Many companies see potential in the current energy transition,’ says Georg Jung from VITO/EnergyVille. ‘Some examples of these could be developers and manufacturers of smart home technology, smart energy modules and remote control applications. They're looking for new areas of application with innovative hardware, software and engineering. That could be better interaction between local power production (through solar panels, for example) and day-to-day energy consumption. Or another example could be a technology that allows a company to use the residual heat from a neighbouring business as process heat.’ The ROLECS project aims to rapidly accelerate these kinds of innovations.

The optimum scale for a LEC is a residential district or a business cluster. Within this, energy would no longer be bought and sold as a commodity, but rather as a service. ‘Households don't purchase gas or electricity, but instead a comfortable temperature or hot water. This form of “taking care of things” is typical of the philosophy behind the LEC’, says Jung.

Ten demo projects

But how would it be best to roll out such a LEC? This is the central question of the ROLECS project. In fact, the project is building upon a series of feasibility studies that have been developed in recent years for the various types of energy communities that could emerge here. This ultimately led to the establishment of ten demonstration projects spread all across Flanders – ten complementary ‘living labs’ where all the aspects of LECs are being investigated.

There are thirty companies working on ROLECS, along with five knowledge institutions including VITO/EnergyVille. The project has been sub-divided into six work packages, each of which addresses a different aspect of a LEC. ‘Based on our broad expertise, we have an advisory role in most of the packages,’ says Pieter Van Den Steen from VITO/EnergyVille. For the second work package, however, VITO/EnergyVille was appointed as coordinating partner. This one is investigating at a fundamental level how new LEC tools can be developed, what the potential of new LEC services could be and what obstacles (legal or privacy-related, for example) might be encountered here. ‘Ultimately, it's down to the industry to do it. As a knowledge institution, we're helping to answer relevant questions and fill gaps, so that companies can conceive of solutions and start developing products.’

Thanks to the division of work packages and the various demo sites, LECs are being looked at from some very different perspectives. What are the appropriate business models? What is the best way to roll out a LEC? What are the regulatory and legal possibilities? How will the financing work? Will it be easy to scale up? And what are the advantages for the stakeholders – both the companies and organisations directly involved and society as a whole? The latter could initiate some far-reaching discussions that may even have tax implications. ‘For example, if you allow discounts for direct stakeholders of a LEC, then you might be passing on the costs to other people or companies via the invoice or tax return,’ says Van Den Steen. ‘Then you have to wonder whether they've had the ability to join a LEC too. These are the kinds of questions that are also being investigated, which mainly means looking at new tariff structures for energy invoices.’

Innovative data management

A different and possibly very important advantage of a LEC is flattening out peak consumption on the grid, precisely because of the smart local energy consumption. ‘The expectation is that we'll be moving to an electrification of energy consumption, and thanks to smart control of charging stations and heat pumps, grid managers may find they don't need to invest as much in strengthening the grid, with less need for peak plants’ says Wim Cardinaels from VITO/EnergyVille. ‘So this could be some major added value of a LEC. We're looking at how that would play out in the Flemish energy landscape.’

Exactly how this flattening out works is being shown at the Thor Park demo site in Genk, where EnergyVille is also based. VITO/EnergyVille is already making skilful use of its electric vehicle fleet and solar panels to limit its peak consumption from the power grid there, and to align the total energy consumption to the production from solar panels at cheap hourly rates. ‘For example, we're trying to use smart software to avoid – where possible for the users– the electric cars all being charged at once in the morning,’ says Van Den Steen. ‘After all, that's when electricity consumption is high anyway.’ VITO/EnergyVille is using innovative data management for this, whereby the expectations of users, building data, weather predictions and hourly rates for electricity are combined to take decisions in real-time. This is just one of the larger challenges in rolling out a LEC.

In any event, the local aspect of a LEC does not take away the bigger picture. Ultimately, LECs could contribute towards producers and end users of energy becoming far more active than they are now. ‘We need to maintain our overall thinking, even at a local level,’ says Georg Jung. ‘In that respect, the LECs form the real basic building blocks of a co-operative energy landscape.’

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