Energy transition in the neighborhood: With climate-positive neighborhoods

Difficult political dependencies, momentous climate change, declining availability of raw materials – many factors are pushing for radical change in the energy sector in order to reduce costs, resource consumption and emissions. The energy consumption of cities plays a central role in this. Looking at the energy management of individual buildings is not enough for sustainable change: current concepts therefore focus on neighborhood planning. This includes “Positive Energy Districts”: climate-positive neighborhoods that have an annual net zero energy import and zero CO₂ emissions through technological networking between buildings, users, and regional energy, mobility, and ICT systems – and should even achieve surplus production of renewable energies. Smart use of urban data also contributes to this. But how is this supposed to work? Are there examples already?

Cities are the black sheep when it comes to energy consumption: they are responsible for more than two-thirds of energy consumption and over 70% of global CO2 emissions. Logical – after all, this is also where the majority of the human population lives. So when the energy transition is tackled, the first place to start is effectively where many live on top of each other. At the same time, long-term change in the energy sector can only be brought about from several sides at once: Socioeconomic, technological, environmental, political, as well as institutional factors must be involved.

As part of a holistic urban strategy, the concept of Positive Energy Districts (PEDs) has been developed. They evolved from earlier concepts of comparable importance: these include (net) zero energy buildings, near-zero energy buildings, climate-positive neighborhoods, and energy-neutral neighborhoods. The great commonality of these concepts is the goal that a building, a neighborhood, or an entire district can meet its energy needs from low-cost, locally available, and environmentally friendly renewable sources.

The first attempt at a general definition of such districts has been attempted by JPI Urban Europe’s PED Program Management. The program’s definition not only talks about an algorithm for calculating energy inputs and outputs, but also sets a framework that outlines three key requirements of climate-positive districts in the context of their respective urban and regional energy systems, which vary widely by city or municipality. The first requirement is that PEDs should rely only on renewable energy; this is one of their most important contributions to climate neutrality. Second, they should make energy efficiency one of their priorities in order to make the best use of available renewable energy. Third, since urban areas are inevitably among the largest consumers of energy, a PED must operate in a way that is optimal for its own energy system (energy flexibility).

From European subprojects to Europe-wide effects

For its contribution to climate neutrality, the European Union (EU) has set itself the goal of building one hundred energy-positive neighborhoods in European countries by 2025 as part of the Strategic Energy Technology Plan. This involves both the design of new neighborhoods and new developments in existing urban districts. To achieve this, the public sector will join forces with industry – with the active participation of the local civilian population. Twenty countries are currently participating in the initiative.

The Joint Programme Initiative Urban Europe (JPI-UE) has also published a brochure with the most advanced European PED projects as well as projects that have PED-related objectives.


Source: JPI Urban Europe

The pioneer countries in PED implementation are the Scandinavian countries with the most projects. In 2020, for example, Finland implemented “Smart Energy Aland,” an energy-efficient, carbon-free and climate-neutral neighborhood in the Aland region. The archipelago benefits from its wind and solar conditions, which have enabled the installation of efficient solar panels and a wind farm in this framework.

The European Union’s current efforts are aimed at bringing such projects to scale and reducing emissions across the board. A variety of technologies play an important role in this effort. But where does data use come into play?

Data for efficient control – even in sustainable neighborhoods

Data has a fundamental function in climate-positive neighborhoods – because without data generation, processing and exchange, there is no efficient energy control. The functionality of PEDs builds on the use of data-based technologies such as artificial intelligence, visualization of processes, geo-information systems, blockchain and others. Urban data is being applied in a variety of functions. These include…

  • …Energy systems management. Highly complex and interactive energy systems, such as those needed for PEDs, cannot be operated manually: Here, intelligent support is needed from smart technologies that, among other things, optimize the various energy flows, connect and balance local demands – from heating systems to e-charging stations.
  • …operation in the context of the local energy market. Numerous PED projects are experimenting with the development of local energy communities or energy exchange platforms, using blockchain technologies, for example.
  • …Citizen Participation. By processing and visualizing data, PED projects can be made tangible for citizens and residents can be directly involved. Results become more transparent at the same time. Gamification techniques can also be used to encourage consumers to become more energy efficient – for example, by setting targets and creating incentives.
  • …Digital twins and 3D visual models. Digital models can be used to simulate processes, situations and their consequences on the basis of data in order to draw conclusions and take action.

Interoperability and integration capability of the technological infrastructure are central to all these functions in PEDs. Numerous systems come together there: for example, control systems from different providers in different buildings of different owners as well as different energy companies. In addition, developed solutions should ideally work again in new contexts. Standardized data use for effective collaboration is important for this and can already be specified by the cities in tenders.

When we talk about technological infrastructure, we are of course again talking about the Urban Data Platform. This is why DKSR will be involved in a large EU project for the development of PEDs in several European cities in the coming year.

ASCEND project: Scaling energy-positive neighborhoods

The ASCEND (“Accelerate PoSitive Clean ENergy Districts”) project has two major goals: To make cities healthier and more resource-efficient – and to develop, accelerate and scale a smart and sustainable system for positive energy districts to do so. 39 partner organizations and cities are collaborating to build two climate-positive districts in the lighthouse cities of Lyon and Munich. To this end, six transferable solution packages are being developed and implemented, which in turn will also be used in the other European consortium cities of Alba Iulia, Budapest, Charleroi, Porto, Prague and Stockholm.

Structure of the ASCEND project, source: ASCEND

DKSR plays a major role in two of the solution sets: first, in developing digital infrastructure as well as the tools for flexible energy systems, and second, in establishing so-called energy communities that share energy and balance demand among themselves. Within this framework, the project team will look at the digital pillars of climate-positive districts and create a model for cities to implement their own PEDs based on open standards, interoperability, and data sovereignty. In addition, DKSR will create a reference model for local energy communities and develop machine learning models for energy efficiency.

The Urban Data Platform also plays an important role in the overall project, as it also serves as an infrastructure for monitoring the project KPIs or metrics, processing and providing real-time data from and for all neighborhoods in the project.

Climate Positive Solutions: Soon to be available to many

Probably the best part about the project: the solutions are being developed in a scalable way for other cities and municipalities – and can be adopted. To make them easily accessible, DKSR will make them available to core members of the Urban Data Community in a processed form via the web portal DKSR.square and the community github: Square where you can find the project with all the information already!

Do you have questions about energy-positive neighborhoods or the ASCEND project? Feel free to contact our consultant Laura Dieguez!