EnergyVille celebrated its tenth anniversary at Genk's Thor Park on 1 June 2021. At the same time, Ronnie Belmans passed on the torch as general manager to Gerrit Jan Schaeffer. A good opportunity to look back as well as forward. “We have grown very quickly over the past decade, and our two research buildings are the most visible result of this," says Belmans. "But there is also a close community that achieves impressive things." Meanwhile, successor Gerrit Jan Schaeffer has strong ambitions. "We are far from fully grown." 

EnergyVille was founded in 2009. Back then, both the energy researchers from KU Leuven and VITO had come to realise that the energy system was changing significantly and that new technologies and systems were absolutely necessary in the fight against global warming - the Paris Climate Agreement was still five years away. "Our unit was already researching smart grids at that time, looking at topics like balance in electricity networks, their flexibility and possible energy storage," says Bert Gysen of the VITO/EnergyVille Energy Technology unit. The Electa research group in Leuven, headed by Professor Ronnie Belmans, was also working on smart grids. "We realised that we could work better together," recalls Belmans. That is how research into smart grids and the rapprochement alignment between KU Leuven and VITO - two of the four 'parent institutes', later joined by IMEC and Hasselt University - led to EnergyVille, which was officially launched in 2010. 

The 'Ville' in EnergyVille

Meanwhile, with LINEAR, the first joint research project had already begun. It was researching how households in Flanders can use a smart grid to adjust their electricity consumption to the available solar and wind energy. The project was a prelude to how EnergyVille was set to conduct research on the energy transition. LINEAR involved numerous industrial partners, which, years after the project's conclusion (in 2014), continues to generate new energy products and services. With this project, EnergyVille was also part of the inception of Smart Grids Flanders, from which the Flemish energy cluster Flux50 later emerged. Belmans: "We brought together the scientific research, but also paid attention to Flanders's industrial and social reality." 

The LINEAR project focused on Flemish households' green electricity consumption in a broader sense, and not only on the possibilities offered by the electricity network. "From the outset our focus was on smart cities, we wanted to look beyond the energy networks alone," says Gerrit Jan Schaeffer, the brand new general manager of EnergyVille, who was Energy Group Energy Director at VITO for eight years until 2015. "That's why we're called EnergyVille." 

The broader focus on smart cities – i.e. urbanised agglomerations, such as we havepresent in large parts of Flanders – also stems from another VITO unit that conducts research into the energy transition, and in which the built environment is central. "When EnergyVille was founded, VITO/EnergyVville research into energy and the built environment was still in its infancy," says Leen Govaerts of the VITO/EnergyVille unit Smart Energy & Built Environment. "But in recent years, this field is higher on the agenda, largely mainly because of its major challenges and the fact we can make a significant contribution with knowledge of multidisciplinary systems, for example, the trade-off between energy efficiency, renewable energy and flexibility." 

Living lab 

The energy performance of buildings and neighbourhoods can be made more sustainable through guidance from the authorities, but also directly by better informing and encouraging stakeholders such as owners and social housing companies. This can be done, for example, with 'digital twins' of buildings or of entire city districts to achieve a clear picture of the expected profits, and at the same time of the anticipated costs. Or with other tools such as the Urban Energy Pathfinder, which detects and calculates renovation and renewable energy potential. The link through all of these solutions is that they are based on reliable data and thorough data analysis. 

These solutions are also developed and researched at Thor Park in Genk, the home of EnergyVille. Within the framework of a major ERDF-SALK project, the campus has grown over the past five years into a real 'living lab' in which new energy technologies can be tested on a large scale, real world situations can be simulated and new business models can be created. In line with the philosophy of EnergyVille, companies are actively encouraged to make use of this testing ground. At the beginning of 2020, Thor Park was recognised as the very first 'low-regulation zone' for energy applications in Flanders.  

The most visible element in the development and growth of EnergyVille over the past ten years has undoubtedly been the construction of the two research buildings in Genk, with offices and state-of-the-art labs for some 400 employees. Ronnie Belmans sees the EnergyVille 1 and 2 buildings as proof of the great strides made by the energy research centre. "But more importantly, I have always had the feeling that our people like coming here, that it is a pleasant place to work. And I am not exaggerating when I say that a close community has developed over recent years. It can accomplish things that we couldn't achieve if we were split up." Belmans also mentions EnergyVille's greatly increased visibility in the media, where the debate around the energy transition has been vigorous, especially in recent years. And politicians, too, are increasingly listening to Genk's energy experts. This is partly due to the projects carried out in the framework of the Energy Transition Fund. In particular, the combination of high-quality modelling with technical insights makes EnergyVille a unique knowledge player in our country in the field of energy. 

Finally, EnergyVille is also highly regarded within the energy world itself. "We noticed this, for example, at the beginning of this year during our debate series Energy Encounters, where the level of lectures and discussions was very high. We had no trouble persuading interesting speakers to take part."  

And now? 

There are worse times to take over as general manager. But Gerrit Jan Schaeffer has strong ambitions for the coming years. EnergyVille has already started a new line of research this year, more specifically into sustainable molecules for processes that are difficult to electrify, for example in the chemical industry. "Industry, too, is a major emitter of greenhouse gases, but electrification alone will not get us where we need to be," says Schaeffer. Ultimately, the goal is to produce as many raw materials as possible in a carbon-neutral way. "We simply must use all means to achieve net zero emissions by 2050."  

In the coming years, cooperation with (energy-intensive) industry will be strengthened, including in the power-to-molecules story. Both Schaeffer and predecessor Ronnie Belmans are convinced of this. "The way I see it, EnergyVille will continue to set up new research collaborations," says Belmans. "Especially in the chemical sector, where there is still a lot to do. Ideally, EnergyVille will be able to link up with a number of international companies to pursue research." 

"We are now an important European player," says Schaeffer, who does not hide his ambitions. "In recent years, the number of European projects we take part in has grown enormously. I see this as a confirmation for EnergyVille that we are a fully-fledged European research centre in the field of energy transition. Further expanding this position and playing a leading role internationally are the challenges where cooperation remains the leitmotif." 

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