As part of the current energy transition, VITO/EnergyVille is developing and testing innovative technologies in Genk, which are set to shape the energy system of the future. Thor Park was made a ‘low-regulation’ zone to enable this to happen as smoothly as possible. This makes the site a ‘living lab’ for sustainable energy solutions.

Four years after the idea was launched, it has finally happened: in early 2020, Flemish Minister for Energy Zuhal Demir recognised Thor Park in Genk as the very first so-called low-regulation zone in Flanders. That means new technologies or applications in terms of energy can be tested at Thor Park without certain current regulations getting in the way of this. This ‘exception regime’ only applies to legislation in terms of energy, and will last for the coming five years – with the possibility of an extension by another five years.

Not possible within current regulations

‘The intention of a low-regulation zone is to give more freedom, in a safe and controlled environment, for research into technologies, services, market and business models and other aspects of a sustainable energy system,’ says Daan Six from VITO/EnergyVille. ‘It allows us to carry out experiments that otherwise wouldn't be possible within current regulations.’

Ultimately, the results of those experiments will provide a view of future regulations, and to support policy. Six: ‘The energy transition is currently proceeding, whereby a range of innovations are being developed and tried out. Which of these are set to be implemented, and how exactly that will happen, the future will tell. But what is certain is that we're evolving from a centralised, top-down energy system directed by large power stations to a far more distributed system, where end users are also producers and play a far more active role. It's pretty clear that this system will also need to be embedded in new regulations.’

‘Living lab’

Typical for a fruitful experimental environment is that only the broader themes around which work is taking place are fixed – such as the local exchange of renewal energy, smart control of energy networks and the development of new market models. Some of the experiments have already begun, such as the smart charging of electric vehicles. There are also other experiments that still need to be fully conceived and developed, but this is characteristic for a low-regulation zone. ‘Along with the other partners on the site, we're forming a ‘living lab’ for energy technologies where collaboration is very important,’ says Six. ‘That means companies are very welcome to come and experiment here in a low-regulation framework.’ VITO/EnergyVille, which is responsible for the scientific implementation of the low-regulation zone, will be proposing several new practical experiments in the coming months. ‘The further development and implementation of the low-regulation zone will take place in consultation with many stakeholders, including the POM Limburg, so that companies can make optimum use of the lab.’

Smart heating grid

The recognition of the low-regulation zone explicitly mentions the regulations from which Thor Park is exempt. But what if concrete legislation does not yet exist for some applications? For example, this is the case for a number of aspects linked to VITO/EnergyVille's research into an innovative thermal network for the optimum integration of various renewable energy sources. ‘We've been doing research into smart(er) thermal networks for some time now,’ explains Six. ‘That's where there is smart control of both the production and consumption. Over time, we'll demonstrate that at Thor Park too, by aligning the consumption from heat pumps on the site to production peaks in the locally produced solar and wind energy, for example.’ The research into this smart thermal (low-temperature) network is still quite fundamental, making it risky, but the technology has a lot of potential, particularly when it is combined with the challenges on the electricity grid.

From a content point of view, the low-regulation zone fits in closely with the concept of the local energy community or ‘LEC’, which generates, consumes or stores energy within a cluster of buildings (see also page ? and ? in this issue). At Thor Park, this LEC is formed by clusters of buildings and companies with locally coordinated and optimised energy management. Six: ‘That allows us, at a very small scale, to do research into future energy markets and how they might be organised and/or regulated.’

Aside from the authorities, knowledge institutions and businesses, energy grid managers are also interested in this exploration of the future energy system. This is why a collaboration agreement has been concluded with Fluvius to streamline the knowledge exchange for the low-regulation zone. ‘This is obviously very important for enabling the experiments to proceed in complete safety’, confirms Six.

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