Researchers are turning over a lot of stones to find ways to cut greenhouse gas emissions. One option being examined in Norway is the role of zero-emission neighbourhoods.
Zero-emission neighbourhoods are areas where most buildings are highly energy efficient. The little energy they need comes from renewable sources.
These neighbourhoods compensate for greenhouse gas emissions from the production, transport and disposal of building materials, and from construction and demolition, by producing more renewable energy – for example from solar panels – than they use.
Assuming these areas comprise a mix of residential and non-residential buildings, the excess heat and cooling from businesses in one building can be used in neighbouring buildings – to a far greater extent than when buildings are planned individually.
The possibilities for efficient energy use, both in individual buildings and in the interplay between them, make zero emission neighbourhoods an important tool in the climate struggle.
Some people ask whether this kind of approach isn’t irrelevant in Norway, which already provides so much of its energy for buildings with emission-free hydropower.
The answer is that this model can work, whether the neighbourhoods are built in the hydropower-based countries like Norway or in countries where solar and wind power are expanding. The less energy that needs to be supplied to neighbourhoods, the more renewable energy can be used to other good purposes.
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The EU has defined both efficient energy consumption and increased electrification as important measures in the efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions. By 2050, the Union wants to reduce total emissions by 80 per cent compared to the 1990 level.
The goal is to cut emissions from buildings by as much as 90 per cent.
The final reductions in greenhouse gas emissions approaching 2050 is anticipated to be very expensive. Europe cannot afford to waste clean renewable energy through inefficient use, either in Norway or in other European countries. This will be reflected in the long-term value of electricity.
The EU expects the demand for electricity to grow by 25 per cent from 2015 to 2050, and that emissions from the energy system during the same period will be virtually eliminated. This will happen primarily by increasing the share of renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power.
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Local power storage
Electrical demand varies considerably in any 24-hour period. Traditionally, morning and early evening hours have been high consumption periods.
In much of Europe, easily adjustable gas power plants have delivered the extra power needed during these periods. But in energy systems where solar and wind power are primary sources, this flexibility needs to be taken care of in completely different ways.
This is where zero emission neighbourhoods can contribute, through measures such as building local energy storage. That is, these facilities store solar and wind energy during periods of more sunshine and wind than customers need at the time. Power can be stored in batteries. Heat can be stored in drill holes and in building materials.
Save on electrical transmission fees
When a whole region collaborates on energy solutions, they become significantly less expensive for the individual user than when they’re acquired building by building.
Norwegian hydropower levels can easily be adjusted up and down throughout the day, according to the variations in power demand. But the flexibility that a zero emission neighbourhood can provide nonetheless has potential interest for Norway.
If neighbourhoods like these can supplement their electrical use with stored energy that they purchase at night when electricity is cheap, they can manage with less outside electricity during the peak morning and early evening hours.
Shrinking the need for expensive reinforcements in the power grid in this way can help slow the transmission fee increases.
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What tools are needed for implementation?
NTNU and Sintef are at the forefront of Norwegian research on zero emission neighbourhoods. The Research Centre on Zero Emission Neighbourhoods in Smart Cities (FME ZEN) directs the research and is one of the Research Council of Norway’s eleven “national teams” working on environmentally friendly energy.
A current topic being worked on are political regulations and instruments that can be used to implement zero emission neighbourhoods.
This knowledge will be valuable, especially if the cost of electricity and emissions/pollution does not trigger enough investment in energy efficiency to reach the EU’s and Norway’s climate goals.
This article first appeared in Dagens Næringsliv on Friday 4 January 2019 and is reproduced here with DN’s permission.