Not only the extent of the energy consumption, but also the moment of consumption affects the energy bill and the greenhouse gas emissions of large customers. With FLEXharvester, VITO/EnergyVille has developed a turnkey platform for applications to manage flexibility within an energy grid. The first application, for peak heat demand reduction, is currently being demonstrated on five operational heat networks in the Benelux, France and Sweden.

On the premises of VITO-SCK-Belgoprocess in Mol, the buildings are heated via a thermal energy grid. A large part of this heat is supplied by gas boilers. Especially in the morning, when the heating in the buildings is switched on again, the total heat demand of the thermal energy grid peaks. And it is precisely this peak that is primarily covered by the gas-fired boilers.  

Flatten the curve 

Since the STORM District Energy Controller was connected to five VITO buildings in 2018, these peaks have been flattened out. Was the heating turned down by a few degrees? Not at all, the energy demand has not been reduced, but it has been shifted in time. 'We push the consumption peaks down and therefore flatten the curve, so that the energy consumption is distributed more evenly over time,' explains Somil Miglani of VITO/EnergyVille. The controller does this in various ways, using smart, self-learning algorithms. 'For example, we use the thermal storage capacity of the buildings themselves. When the heating is on, the walls, floors and interior warm up at the same time. If you lower the heating, this stored energy is released and the temperature in the room remains almost constant. This way, the heat demand is shifted.’ Fewer peaks not only reduce the energy bill (after all, energy is most expensive during peak demand), they also reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 'In modern, climate-friendly heat networks, the baseload typically comes from renewable energy sources (such as geothermal energy) and peak demand is usually met by burning fossil fuels'. 

The STORM controller can also respond to the highly fluctuating electricity market by regulating heat production from heat pumps, for example, to coincide as much as possible with the off-peak electricity prices. Finally, the controller can also be used to balance the exchange of heat between different grids - for example, an industrial and a residential heat network that both draw from the same geothermal energy source.  

Ultimately, the STORM controller enables consumers to be more flexible with their energy consumption, in this case heat. It was developed on the FLEXharvester technology platform, which VITO/EnergyVille set up as an incubator for all kinds of applications to 'harvest' energy flexibility. FLEXharvester was developed to help solution providers in the energy market (software developers, system integrators, etc.) develop innovative solutions. 'By relying on our platform, they can shorten development times and go to market faster,' says Erik De Schutter of VITO/EnergyVille. 'FLEXharvester/STORM District Energy Controller has been extensively tested, demonstrated and approved at five different sites at home and abroad (see inset)'. 

Role as technology supplier 

What's more, FLEXharvester works with Microsoft software. In fact, it is based on it, including the Microsoft Azure cloud platform. Companies that have experience with this (e.g. as Microsoft Solution Provider) will therefore find a familiar development environment. And it is precisely these companies that are the customers of VITO/EnergyVille. De Schutter: 'They build the energy flexibility solutions, which they then offer to grid operators and operators of energy grids'. As such, VITO/EnergyVille primarily profiles itself as a supplier of technology tested in the field, which can be immediately used by solution providers. The focus is therefore on triggering and supplying ready-to-use innovation to these companies, which means that we operate much closer to the market than you would expect from a research centre'. 

The excellent collaboration with Microsoft is evidenced by the location where the STORM controller will soon be launched internationally. This will take place on 25 March 2021 at the Microsoft headquarters in Zaventem. Under the name FLEXharvester, VITO/EnergyVille is bringing innovative algorithms to partners and customers via Azure Marketplace', explains Erik Kerkhofs, regional director of Microsoft. The power of the Microsoft platform combined with the expertise of partners such as VITO/EnergyVille make our offering unique and the impact for customers in various industries indisputable'. 

The fact that it is the solution providers that serve the end customers (the grid companies) does not mean that they do not come to VITO/EnergyVille. 'First and foremost, the end customer wants to know whether sufficient energy flexibility can be harvested in their grid,' explains Koen Allaerts of VITO/EnergyVille. 'We look into this in the form of a pilot project, a kind of exploration like we did with the STORM controller. It is a comprehensive exploration which ideally runs over several heating seasons, so that the customer gets a good idea of the possibilities'. 

Feedback from the end customer is also important in launching new energy flexibility applications. 'Various candidate applications are currently being assessed, including an application to reduce the peak demand caused by an electric company fleet', concludes De Schutter. 'Ultimately, the market decides which tools we will develop'. 

The STORM District Energy Controller, a follow-up to a European Horizon 2020 project, is being tested and demonstrated at four other sites, in addition to the Balmatt site of VITO in Mol: 

Heerlen (NL): The Mijnwater heat network supplies heat and cooling to homes, shops and industrial companies in and around the Limburg town of Heerlen. The grid is powered with heat from former coal mines. The controller streamlines the energy distribution between the different types of customers. 

Eindhoven (NL): heating company Ennatuurlijk operates various heat networks in the Netherlands, including one in Eindhoven, which is powered with green heat from a biomass power plant. Through data collection, the controller learns the heating behaviour of the buildings to which it is connected, so that energy consumption can be easily monitored and managed. In addition, the controller allows buildings to be used as a heat buffer, which can reduce peak demand. 

Paris-Saclay (FR): at this large 'green' campus, where both research organisations and companies with their R&D are located, a heat network is currently being constructed which is powered by geothermal energy. The controller is connected to five large buildings - three student flats and two university buildings. The peak heat demand is reduced so that the use of gas boilers is minimised, resulting in a greater share of geothermal energy in heat production. 

Växjö (SWE): at the Rottne site, boilers fired with biofuel supply heat to surrounding homes and shops. Within the Horizon 2020 project, the peak reduction by the controller was tested on this site. This resulted in an average reduction of almost 13%. 

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