The electricity grid of tomorrow will allow prosumers to tailor their production and consumption patterns to 'current needs', but responding to these needs in real time requires an online communication platform: a genuine 'Internet of Energy' focused on end users. VITO/EnergyVille is offering its comprehensive knowledge and expertise to grid operators and companies who are looking to launch new energy services.

We are currently in the middle of an energy transition that is drastically changing how we produce and consume energy, as consumers with solar panels on their roofs become prosumers. There is also an ongoing trend towards electrification, including the increasing use of heat pumps and the growing popularity of electric vehicles. Finally, more and more end users have storage media, like electric cars and home batteries – also houses with proper thermal insulation are contributing to this. This evolution is driving the requirement for flexibility in the power network, which is also being supplied with electricity from an ever increasing share of intermittent sources such as solar and wind power.

This enforced flexibility requires sharing of real-time data covering production capacity, weather forecasts and the electrical equipment that is connected to the network. Elia partnered with Belgian distribution grid operators Fluvius, Ores, Sibelga and Resa at the end of 2018 to create the IO.Energy project and take the initial step towards this 'Internet of Energy'. The fact that all the grid operators are involved is both unique and significant, because they hold all the pieces of the puzzle that are needed to shape the electricity grid of the future and roll out new products and services.

Energy services of the future

'IO.Energy is rooted in the concept that energy services in the future should be built around consumers,’ says Jessie Moelans, manager at Elia for the IO.Energy Ecosystem. 'This means moving towards a decentralised energy service which puts solar panels, home batteries and electric cars well ahead of large power plants. Together with current developments in digital technology and the fact that consumers are becoming increasingly energy conscious and want more options, this means that we have to start thinking about energy services in the future. That is at the heart of IO.Energy.'

Operators like Elia aren't doing this on their own; they are bringing organisations and businesses that develop ideas for new energy products and services together to create a broad and diverse ecosystem. In the first half of 2019, all the partners in IO.Energy came together for a series of five workshops to launch ideas, discuss them amongst each other and then test them on independent experts. VITO/EnergyVille provided these experts in the form of five staff members who attended each workshop. 'We offer wide-ranging expertise,' says Kris Kessels from VITO/EnergyVille. 'Thanks to our collaboration with KU Leuven, among other things, we hold a huge and diverse store of knowledge about energy markets and business models, grid models, digital meters, demand management, battery storage technology and much more. We truly are a one stop-solution and the perfect place for participants in the workshops to bring all their ideas.'

The ideas that were put forward were challenged, assessed and developed in as much detail as possible, including by the independent experts from VITO/EnergyVille. Some eight ideas were left at the end of the sessions: commercially interesting proposals that will be tested in an initial experimental setting during the upcoming sandboxing phase.

'Our ultimate intention is to facilitate as much of the energy transition as possible,' says Thomas Polfliet from VITO/EnergyVille. 'This involves both helping end users and businesses to maintain their energy costs at an affordable level through active participation in the system, and helping grid operators and governments to design an energy system for the future that is as cost-effective as possible. So, we are also very happy to be a partner in IO.Energy, where end users and grid operators are working together to shape the future of our energy system.'

Action at last

Involving private stakeholders wherever possible means the project is creating realistic expectations in terms of energy services for the future. Moelans says: 'Although being a grid operator means we do see the trends in the energy landscape, we have no idea what those future services might actually look like. That is why we support the call for interested parties to be part of an ecosystem that isn't just thinking about services for the future, but is also turning ideas into test cases to work with consumers to validate hypotheses.' Thankfully, the call by Belgian grid operators to the market was an overwhelming success, with around 90 businesses responding and around 60 playing an active part in the ideation process, where ideas are presented and tested.

IO.Energy is working on four topics: using external signals to guide energy consumption and consumption behaviour, producing and then sharing energy at a local level (for example, by neighbourhood), improving production forecasting, and monitoring the stability of the power network and of the security of supply.

The level of interest from businesses demonstrates the success of the project, with the unique factor being that so many different parties are finally sitting down and talking to each other. 'There are plenty of ideas, but they will only get off the ground if businesses are able to work together with grid operators,' says Polfliet. 'Lots of people were waiting for a chance to do something, and now they can.'