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Ali Vasallo - Towards near-zero energy consumption at district level

Citizens living in near-zero energy districts will make significant savings and benefit from an increased comfort in their homes

Transforming districts into near-zero energy consumption urban areas could be a reality in the next few decades. This is what the EU-funded Project CITyFiED aims to demonstrate by testing new approaches and improved business model, designed to ensure this solution is replicable around Europe. Project coordinator Ali Vasallo, who is an expert in industrial engineering at the energy division of an applied research institute, called the CARTIF Technology Centre, based in Boecillo near Valladolid in Spain, talks about the challenges of reducing the energy consumption at city district level.

What is the aim of your research?
The project’s main aim is to deliver a systematic and integrated methodology combined with the development of better business models to support the transformation of urban areas into districts with near-zero energy consumption. The ambition is then to replicate this kind of intervention in cities around Europe. This involves combining different technologies, such as retrofitting buildings, district heating and cooling systems and smart grids, and introducing renewable energies.

Which are the strategy's main pillars?
One of the main pillars of the strategy is to get the involvement of the citizens, which is really important for the success of such projects. Form a technical point of view, we are first going to redesign the envelope of the buildings to improve their thermal properties. Then, we will introduce a district heating system based on renewable energies, like biomass. Next, we will provide the district with a new smart grid, which is an electrical intelligent network, and then introduce a monitoring platform. That way, individual owners or tenants—and the neighbourhood as a whole—will be provided with the information, that, in turn, will increase their awareness over their consumption habits.

We are also focusing on meeting economic and technological targets. We have to deal with innovative technologies to be implemented in our demonstration sites. Among others, we are going to study better systems for centralised thermal energy generation, new strategies to control the temperature of the system, how to integrate renewables and how to develop a monitoring platform for data gathering and storage, data analysis and data visualisation. We need to study all of these technologies to implement them in our demo sites. We also need to develop new business models to make these kinds of interventions possible and attractive for all the stakeholders. Indeed, it is the demonstration of their economic value that is one of the main aspects of this project.

How will you convince owners to accept and invest in such a retrofitting project?
The idea is to show that if people go for energy efficient solutions, they can make significant savings on their bill and better control their energy consumption. What is more, as we are going to improve the thermal behaviour of the building, these solutions will improve users’ comfort. In some cases an ESCO—energy service company— together with a construction company, will make the initial investment to implement these technologies. And then the owners can pay this back in the long term through energy savings.

What is the expected impact of this smart city demonstration project?
We hope to be able to replicate widely our strategy in other districts around Europe in order to accelerate the retrofitting uptake of low efficient district stock. The areas chosen for the demonstration sites are similar to many others found around European cities. Apart from the involvement of the citizens, one important condition for replicability is to have a certain level of homogeneity in the district to make the installation of heating and cooling systems at district level easier. We are going to involve a city cluster consiting up of 10 cities and use virtual demonstrations to replicate the benefits and feasibility of our strategy.

Marta Espar, 31 July 2014