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Saving Energy is not the only important thing

On a daily basis I speak to companies, governments and civil society organisations that have sustainability goals. Often with fine ambitions that exceed the Paris Proof goals. In doing so, one usually looks at the energy efficiency of its own organisation. A good start. But to make our energy system truly sustainable, it is important to also take the next step. The step towards a smart energy system. A system in which buildings are not only efficient, but also flexible. Where buildings consume energy when it is available or feed it back when needed. Using available buffers as much as possible.

The problem:
With the transition to a mostly electric and renewable energy system, we are creating new problems. When there is a lot of wind or sun, there is an abundance of energy that is not always needed. Energy is just a commodity for consumers and businesses. We assume that when we turn on the washing machine, there is just electricity at that moment. If our solar panels produce electricity, we just want to be able to feed it back into the grid at that moment. But at that moment, the sun is shining everywhere and so all the panels are producing electricity. The question of whether others will then take our power and whether the grid cables and transformers might not be powerful enough does not seem to be our problem then. But of course it is, it is a collective problem. Investments in the power grid needed to enable this transition are huge. And if it were only a financial problem we could solve it. But there is also a huge shortage in the labour market for technical staff and raw materials to enable this transition are scarce. The ever-increasing demand for electricity due to e-mobility and heat pumps, among other things, makes it even more urgent.

Sustainable energy grid requires integrated solutions
Besides physically expanding our energy network, we are also moving towards a more flexible energy system. In doing so, we need to look for opportunities for storage and dynamic use. Preferably as sustainably as possible. So without affecting the consumer and with the least possible use of cobalt, lithium or other scarce and polluting earth metals. In doing so, it is good to look as holistically as possible. Not one solution or technique, but the energy transition requires an integral approach with a mix of solutions and techniques that optimise energy production, transport, storage and consumption. Specifically, it calls for economical and smart use of energy that is geared to the capabilities of the transmission grid and the availability of renewable energy such as sun and wind. And every form of energy storage that we can add to that process increases flexibility and thus expansion possibilities.

The potential of buildings:
Not all solutions require large investments or are technologically complex. Sometimes we sit on top of an opportunity without realising it ourselves. The buildings in which we work, recreate or live offer huge potential in themselves for efficiency and storage. Buildings are actually big thermal energy buffers. You warm them, and it is stored within the walls of the building, just until it slowly seeps out again through the fa├žade. The better the building is insulated, the more capacity 'the battery'. When we heat or cool buildings with electric heat pumps and chillers, this offers huge opportunities. After all, a heat pump converts electricity into heat and this heat is then stored in the building. The building becomes a 'thermal battery' and thus indirectly an electric battery. A welcome buffer in our energy system.

Technology as an enabler for the integrated system
Our energy system is becoming increasingly complex. Proper control of that system is essential and can be done by technology and algorithms. When energy demand can be predicted, then production can be adjusted accordingly. When algorithms know what storage options are available, they can deploy them to store overproduction, or call on energy when there is demand. It sounds simple and, in fact, it is.

Optimising energy from the ecoBuilding Digital Twin
Priva has worked with ecoBuilding for years to develop the above technology. It has been used successfully for years for buildings and energy networks, but also in greenhouse horticulture, a sector that depends on the availability and optimal control of energy. It works with a so-called 'Digital twin', a virtual copy of a building or energy network. Algorithms then calculate the optimal use of (thermal) energy 24 hours ahead, taking into account building use, renewable energy, solar radiation, storage and availability, among other factors. The optimum is then to use energy at the right times and as efficiently as possible. This means saving energy and using (renewable) energy as effectively as possible.

Below is an actual example building that is predictively controlled 24/7 by the algorithms of ecoBuilding. The precondition is the user's comfort definitions. In this case, a minimum of 21C and a maximum of 23C during office hours (bottom graph). For this purpose, the system has a heat pump at its disposal (3rd graph from top). Electricity can be purchased from the energy grid (1st graph, based on dynamic prices*). Or used from the production of its own solar panels (2nd graph from above). The optimum is calculated by considering, among other things, the purchase price of electricity, the availability of energy from the solar panels, the building's accumulation and the heat the building receives for free from the sun.

*Dynamic energy prices
Dynamic energy prices are prices for electricity that vary by the hour. It is a nationwide (EPEX-NL) market where energy is traded. Prices are low when there is a surplus (usually when there is a lot of wind or solar energy) and high when there is a shortage (usually during peak hours in the morning and afternoon). By heating the building a little extra when there is a surplus and not doing so when there is a shortage, the building moves with the supply and demand of the dynamic energy grid. The building becomes a 'thermal battery' that helps keep the energy grid in balance. As a result, more capacity is released, less grid reinforcement is needed and the building helps make the transition to sustainable energy possible. And in addition, the energy bill will be lower due to purchasing at cheap times. A real win/win.

About us:
VB Optimum is a specialist in intelligent energy controls for buildings and grids. We originated from Priva and Van Beek Ingenieurs and are actively working with them on the large-scale implementation of this promising technology. Partners work with us for implementation and sales. Installers and integrators such as Unica, Kropman, Croonwolter&dros, Rensen System Integration, Van Lente, Regel Partners, Van Dorp and Coneco work with us to make Dutch real estate more sustainable. We have realised successful implementations at numerous universities, colleges, municipalities and companies.
Wondering what we can do for your building(s). Feel free to contact us at
Author: Frank Visscher, co-founder of VB Optimum and specialist in Intelligent Climate Systems