What role does the building sector play in the post-COVID era on the path to climate neutrality?

What role does the building sector play in the post-COVID era on the path to climate neutrality?

It is a reality that the building stock, not only in Spain, but in Europe in general is outdated. Although this can be a positive indication that cities have years and history, and buildings can be heritage with high historical value, the reality is also that a large part of them are not energy efficient. Approximately 85% of European buildings were built before 2001 (according to the Renovation Wave Strategy document)

The specific regulation on thermal insulation of the building envelope appear for the first time around the 70sm which means that buildings over 50 years old (more than 40%) were built without any requirement on energy performance. In general, buildings are responsible for 40% of total energy consumption in the EU, and for 36% of greenhouse gas emissions. It must be taken into account that the current regulations for new construction are strict enough in terms of energy efficiency and emissions (through the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive, the EPBD): since 2019 it is mandatory that all new public buildings be nearly Zero-Energy Buildings (nZEB), and, since the end of last year (2020), it is mandatory for all new buildings. Therefore, the focus is now on meeting better energy efficiency standards in the rest of the building stock.

The COVID-19 crisis that we are experiencing has also put the focus on the buildings, which have become an office for teleworking, a nursery or classroom for children and students, even the main place for entertainment and (online) shopping. Europe sees this as an opportunity to join forces and, while addressing the way to overcome the COVID-19 crisis, also take advantage of the effort that has been made for years in retrofit, to rethink, redesign and modernize the building stock, adapting it to a greener environment and supporting economic recovery.

Source: https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/fs_20_1610

The European Commission already set in 2018 the long-term objective of being climate neutral in 2050, and last 2020 it established a medium-term objective of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 by 55% compared to 1990 level. To achieve this objective, buildings must make a great contribution, since they are responsible for a high percentage of these emissions, with approximately a 60% reduction; in addition to a 14% reduction in final energy consumption and 18% in energy consumption for heating and cooling. These are the premises of the Renovation Wave Strategy to improve the energy efficiency of buildings, with the aim of at least double the renovation rates over the next 10 years, thus promoting energy renovation in buildings throughout the European Union.

Source: https://ec.europa.eu/energy/topics/energy-efficiency/energy-efficient-buildings/renovation-wave_en

Furthermore, to support this, Europe is trying to ensure accessible and well-oriented financing, through initiatives within the framework of Next Generation EU the post-pandemic recovery plan, aimed at rebuilding post-COVID-19, which will also have a part for energy refurbishment in buildings.

In view of all this transformation that will take place in Europe, the European Commission has also begun to worry about aesthetics (because, as we said at the beginning, it is about transforming the old building stock, but paying attention to its historical value and as heritage). This is where the new European Bauhaus was recently born, a policy lab to work with citizens, as a participatory initiative to create resilient and inclusive cities, co-designing and co-creating a new style to provide more harmonised and sustainable future; materialising the European Green Deal and accompanying it with an aesthetic that characterises the sustainable transformation.

Is it true that these existing initiatives in the European context help and facilitate the definition of strategies for renovation of the building sector, but, if we were the politician responsible for improving the building stock in our region or municipality, where would we start?

First, it would be necessary to generate the most detailed knowledge possible of the building stock. Well, in this way, the policies on renovation and energy retrofitting in buildings will be more precise and specific to the real problems, and the solutions and financing offered adjusted to the status of the building stock in each case.

For this, we can make use of the public databases of existing buildings. At European level, the Building Stock Observatory (BSO) stands out among others, where information is collected digitally on the status of European buildings, providing a better understanding of the energy performance of buildings through reliable, consistent and comparable data. A relevant data source at European level is also TABULA/EPISCOPE, two European projects, one as the follow-up of the previous one, which provide a database of residential buildings based on defined typologies according to the size, age or other parameters, providing a set of examples for each of the countries analysed representing these building types.

Another important source of information for the characterisation of the building sector is the Energy Performance Certificates (EPCs) (more detailed information on this in a previous entry) of buildings, by analysing the documentation provided in the general registry of each region (autonomous community) or at national level, depending on the country. This certificate, beyond obtaining a label on the building’s energy consumption and its CO2 emissions (with letters from “A” to “F”), contains specific data on the year of construction, the construction characteristics of the building’s thermal envelope, energy systems, proposed measures to improve the energy rating, etc. So it becomes valuable information to know the status of buildings and the actions that could be carried out to improve that status, and to be able to extrapolate it to neighbourhoods, cities, regions and countries.

At CARTIF we participate in different projects aimed at improving knowledge of the building sector, and to support in decision-making that help in the definition of future renovation strategies. For example, in BuiltHub a data collection of the European building stock is carried out, as well as a roadmap is established on how to obtain reliable and useful data for the development of renovation strategies. Other projects, such as ELISE Energy Pilot, MATRYCS and BD4NRG, use the data from the Energy Performance Certificates (EPCs) to get a better knowledge of the status of the building stock in different regions (autonomous communities in the case of Spain), while it also participating in the development of a common certification model for Europe. Or the TEC4ENERPLAN project, where advanced techniques for multi-scale energy planning (from building to region) are developed, and support for the development of tools that serve as the basis for meeting the 2020-2050 energy efficiency goals.

What if urban water networks could become a resource of renewable energy?

What if urban water networks could become a resource of renewable energy?

Water is a source of life… and energy. In this post, we are addressing the water-energy nexus in the urban context, where both resources are essential and at the same time critical with an unexorable increase in the demand due to demographic movements and economic growth. Traditional hidrological planning policies have been based on the capacity to regulate and increase water availability. This approach has led to the gradual depletion of the resource with over-exploited aquifers, loss of quality of the water supplied, deterioration of aquatic ecosysems or the appearance of conflicts between users. In parallel, we face the effects derived from climate change, which is undoubtedly a water crisis and a threat multiplier: floods, storms and droughts are becoming more frequent and extreme, and these trends are projected to increase as the climate continues to change. Furthermore, much of the water infrastructure in the developed world is now over 50 years old and needs to be replaced, improved or repaired. Extreme temperatures and aging infrastructure will aggravate the problem of water leaks and confirm the need to control and reduce leaks in drinking water networks.

In general, all these pressures on the urban water cycle imply an increase in energy consumption and operating costs. However, to date, energy is rarely mentioned in urban water planning strategies. In this way, cities face the continuous challenge of providing urban water services without increasing the impact on the environment. This, together with the perennial debate over whether water should be a “luxury good” or a “social good accessible to all”, could place water in the focus of the biggest geopolitical conflict of the 21st century.

This current context of water scarcity and climate emergency demands solutions to increase the cities resilience. In addition, Europe aims to be the first climate-neutral continent by 2050 and municipalities will clearly play a fundamental role in this transition. The water sector can become a leader in providing the kind of green infrastructure, services and jobs needed to enable climate change mitigation and adaptation.

In CARTIF we are working on the European LIFE NEXUS project that proposes a paradigm shift by considering the urban water cycle as a source of renewable energy. Throughout the cycle there are locations with excess energy where it is necessary to adapt the flow or pressure to the supply conditions. Within the framework of the project, we are analyzing the potential of mini-hydropower systems to recover the unexploited energy at these sites where energy is being dissipated.

Our project addresses two complementary objectives. On the one hand, we have carried out the first European inventory of the mini-hydropower potential in European cities, which is already available through the project website and currently houses data from 101 locations. On the other hand, we seek to identify what type of technology is ideal for urban sites where the electricity generation capacity is usually less than 100 kW. Among the different systems available, the Pump as Turbine (PaT) technology has been selected and the novel integration of a PaT with a battery storage is being carried out to optimize the energy generation and use. The new prototype will be fully operational by the end of 2021 at the Drinking Water Treatment Plant (DWTP) of León in Spain. One of the objectives of the project will be to validate this innovative technology, obtain information on its real performance and analyze its viability. Specificallly, it is expected to have a generation of 252 MWh per year of renewable electricity and a 100% in GHG emisisons from th DWTP, which means avoiding the emission of 163 tons of CO2 equiv per year.

In this way, life nexus does its particular bit in the clean energy transition. Learn more about the project on its website, latest news, ad if you have data on potential locations o r existing facilities, do not hesitate a become a Follower of the project*.

*We encourage you to participate, since the most promising Folloers will receive in a later phase of the project a personalized report with the feasabilityof the technology.

Can mathematical models help us to take care our planet?

Can mathematical models help us to take care our planet?

In recent years, it has been heard more and more frequently talking about such an abstract concept as mathematical models in an abstract appearance. With the COVID-19 epidemic, news bulletins were filled with news with “predictions” about what could happen in the future and the impact of different confinement measures. This global emergency situation, and the lack of experience with something completely new, turned the problem into something too vast not to use any tool that would help us evaluate what were the best alternatives to manage the pandemic, and this is where the models play a fundamental role.

First, it is necessary to emphasize that the models are not a “divinatory science”, but are only a representation of reality. In fact, in our heads daily we build mental models and future scenarios to make decisions, that is, based on our past experience we anticipate and evaluate the consequences in the future of different alternatives, and based on this, we make choices about for example, what type of shoes wearing in a wedding, or how we organize the week. But when the system becomes too complex (many interconnected variables), we are left with only three options:

1) Go crazy trying to mentally analyse something immeasurable.

2) Take risks without thinking about future consequences.

3) Call on the help provided by formal models or tools when making decisions.

Of course, we are not going to build a model to decide what kind of clothes to take on a trip, but in the case of analysis of important decisions, such us certain policies and strategies that require large investments, or whose consequences are relevant for society, it is seems the most appropriate option.

In emergency situations, and with high uncertainty, as occurred during the pandemic, the models and planning tools built from them serve as a guide. No matter how much uncertainty the future inevitable implies, it is better to make “guided” decisions under the light of a headlamp than totally dark. According to George E.P. Box, “in essence, all the models are incorrect, the practical question is whether they are useful to us.”

Another undoubtedly emergency situation, although apparently more distant, is climate change. Due to the increase in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions since the Industrial Revolution, the balance on the planet has been altered. CO2 is the gas that is currently contributing the most to this warming, basically because it is the gas that we have emitted the most in recent years. This gas, along with methane (CH4 ) and nitrous oxide (N2O) are called “long-lived” GHGs, because they persist in the atmosphere for decades and even centuries. Due to this, in climate policies it is essential to consider the dynamics of the climate system in which the effects are long-term, and in addition it is necessary to consider the inercia, that is to say, if in this year 2021, we cut all GHG emissions, the temperature would continue increasing. Therefore, the moment in which the policies are applied and implemented is also key.

Due to this, the use of dynamic models is essential for the design of climate policies, that is, models in which the variable “time” is the fundamental piece and, precisely, the objective is to be able to determine how certain variables of interest are going to evolve over time building scenarios (or different “possible” futures).

Likewise, due to the characteristics of the problem, the evaluation of climate policies is not only carried out in the short-medium term, but also needs to be done in the long term. For example, the European Union´ s climate neutrality target is set at 2050: almost 30 years from now!

Considering this global challenge, it is necessary to define planning instruments to give an “international and coordinated response”. Specifically, the European Union demands that each member state prepare the NECP (National Integrated Energy and Climate Plan) in which each country indicates its own decarbonization objectives as well as the measures to achieve them, including energy transition policies, together with an ante evaluation of these policies, precisely using this type of models and future projections.

Thus, the models are key support tools to help the politician or the person responsible of designing policies or strategies based on the information they offer. We know that perfection in real life (in real systems) does not exist, but we can make better decisions by evaluating which alternatives are better, or if they are simply feasible before implementing them. It would make no sense in a political plan to define objectives and measures by throwing numbers into the air. How much confidence would these long-term political promises give? What feeling would it produce in the population? Not just anger, but something worse: mistrust, leading to hopelessness and inaction. Therefore, planning tools have to: help understand the problem and raise awareness, and secondly, analyse and compare solutions, including their effectiveness, thus motivating the acceptance of said solutions as well as their future implementation.

But climate change is not the only problem in our society. Recently an investigation by the journal Science was released in the news, in which it warned about the threat of biodiversity due to the future massive deployment and without management of renewable energies in the territory. Therefore, planning instruments must go further and help us answer “somewhat” more complex questions: how to carry out the energy transition in an orderly and socially fair way? How to plan the territory to deal with climate change, favouring local development, and at the same time respecting biodiversity? In this regard, it is key in the design of climate and energy policies to also consider the different sustainable development objectives (social, economic, environmental,etc.) and therefore to use models that allow holistic analyses considering all the other aspects, such as through the so-called Integrated Assessments Models.

CARTIF participates in the development of this type of support tools for decision-making in matters of climate change in projects such as CCliMAP and LOCOMOTION. In the first case, modelling GHG emissions derived from territorial planning instruments at the municipal level. In the second project, through the development of IAMs (Integrated Assessment Models) in system dynamics, allowing the analysis and design of energy transition and sustainability policies even at the global level.

In companies it is essential to design and evaluate strategies before making decisions in order to use resources effectively. Our planet is the home we share, which provides us with the resources we need. What can interest us more than defining a good strategy to maintain the balance of our planet? It is clear that if it is necessary to radically change our roadmap, it is better that we know “how” as soon as possible.

Nature returns to Valladolid!

Nature returns to Valladolid!

During the confinement, we have witnessed how nature quickly returned to the cities in our absence. Wild flora took over the corner of our cities, growing in every available crevice and gradually recovering lost space. It became visible that the streets also belong to the vegetation, but as it is thought, the city prevents their development. At what point did nature begin to disappear from urban environment? Is it possible that they live together? And, if we want vegetation to return to cities for good and to be able to enjoy it, what measure can be taken?

The relationship between nature and city has not always been as we know it today. Before the development of the modern city, vegetation was included in many spaces (tree-lined paths, spurs, avenues…) forming part of the urban landscape. Some of these spaces still survive and we can enjoy them. But this coexistence begins to disappear with the development of the current city (mid 20th century). Due to the growing demand for spaces for cars, roads, parking lots, buildings… the city has been deforesting and relegating green spaces and trees to the background, limiting its growth to specific and insolated areas, and in many cases disappearing completely. Taking te city of Valladolid as an example, we can find multiple cases where trees and gardens disappeared during this time. The Plaza Mayor, San Benito, Plaza Zorrilla, San Pablo,,, at present they are hard, waterproof squares without a trace of the vegetatiom that until not so long ago they had.

With this new urbanism, not only were many green spaces lost, but also the social and environmental benefits they provide, reducing the quality and comfort of urban spaces. Green areas are areas for leisure, games, sports and spaces for contact with nature, but they also improve the well-being and comfort of citizens by reducing high temperatures and improving air quality by capturing environmental pollution. Currently, the presence of vegetation in cities is especially important to help cities adapt to climate change and mitigate its effects, since they act as carbon sinks and improve rainwater management, among other benefits.

For this reason, in recent years it has become very important to reserve the current city model and implement new urban development policies aimed at re-naturalizing and recovering the traditions of nature in the city.

Cities are beginning to take measures in this regard and there are already actions that reintroduce new urban green spaces to take advantages of their benefits. Returning to the example of Valladolid, a representative case is that of Plaza España. This, like many other squares, lost its trees for the construction of an underground car park, on which there is currently a market.

urban green spaces in Plaza España, Valladolid
Evolution of Plaza España in images

Thanks to old photographs, it can be seen that previously the square was a green area, with two rows of trees, offering a shady and pleasant space. It is with the construction of the underground parking (1995) when the vegetation on the surface disappears. Until now, the square had remained a hard space, with hardly any trace of the vegetation of yesteryear and it was not until last year (2020) when the square was recovered as a green space of the city. These actions are within the URBAN GreenUP project, coordinated by CARTIF (www.urbangreenup.eu), whose objective is the application of Urban Re-naturalization plans, in Valladolid and in two other European cities: Liverpool (United Kingdom) and Izmir (Turkey). In this case, it is a green roof over the canopy, which allows the current market and parking uses to be maintained. Returning the vegetation to the square not only has an aesthetic impact, it also affects the comfort and well-being of the space, also providing other benefits such as better management of rainwater and the creation of a new space to promote urban biodiversity.

The combination of new forms of vegetation together with the traditional ones, has allowed nature to return to this point of the city… from where it should never have left. We hope that many squares will follow this example and recover the lost green spaces!

Biomethane and biohydrogen: the future of energy is here

Biomethane and biohydrogen: the future of energy is here

Both biomethane and biohydrogen are two gases that have been going strong in our current energy landscape. Both have a renewable origin and their formation can be associated with CO2 capture and storage processes, another of the great objectives of our society to fight against global warming.

Biomethane is nothing other than methane with a renewable origin, as opposed to natural gas where methane has a fossil origin. Biomethane is typically generated by purifying the biogas produced in anaerobic digesters that treat waste streams such as sewage sludge, manure or other biodegradable streams. It is the operation generally known as the upgrading process [1]. Biomethane has the added advantage that it is chemically identical to natural gas, so it can be substituted in any of its applications. For this reason, biomethane is expected to play a transcendental role in the decarbonization of the Spanish and European economy with a view to 2050 [2].

If we return form biogas, its other major component is CO2, but there is the possibility of reintroducing this CO2 to the anaerobic digester or treating it in another reactor and, through what is known as the methane process, generating more biomethane [3]. That is, we can use CO2 to generate methane, who gives more? But this process is not as mature as that of conventional anaerobic digestion and, although it has been shown to be technically feasible (more than 100 operating plants are known in Europe), the performance of the process needs to improve so that its economic viability is out of all doubt.

Once we have the biomethane, another option we have is to generate green hydrogen (named for its renewable origin) through a well-known reforming process. The reforming of natural gas to produce hydrogen is a common industrial practice, so reforming biomethane is an entirely plausible option. The usual reforming is carried out by reacting methane with water vapor, but there is already work that has shown the possibility of replacing this water with CO2, so we return to using carbon dioxide as a raw material, removing it from the atmosphere and instead producing the desired hydrogen.

But hydrogen can also have a biological origin, which is what is known as biohydrogen. In nature there are algae and bacteria that generate hydrogen through their metabolic cycles. These organisms, grown in a controlled environment, can also become a biohydrogen factory. In this case, and as it happened in the methanation processes, it has been shown that the processes work and can be scalable, but the yields that are currently achieved remain a barrier to their implementation for industrial purposes.

But that’s what research is for, to keep working and make these processes (and others that we will talk about on another occasion) a reality in the short-medium term.

[1] Hidalgo, D., Sanz-Bedate, S., Martín-Marroquín, J. M., Castro, J., & Antolín, G. (2020). Selective separation of CH4 and CO2 using membrane contactors. Renewable Energy, 150, 935-942.

[2] Elguera, N. M., Salas, M. D. C., Hidalgo, D., Marroquín, J. M., & Antolín, G. (2020). Biometano, el gas verde que pide paso en España. IndustriAmbiente: gestión medioambiental y energética, (30), 50-56.

[3] Hidalgo, D. Martín-Marroquín, J.M. (2020). Power-to-methane, coupling CO2 capture with fuel production: An overview. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, Volume 132, 110057.

Blockchain for a better planet

Blockchain for a better planet

Blockchain technology has been explained in a previous entry of this Blog, and another entry about Blockchain and the electric market customers is also available. This new entry is again focused on this technology but, in this case, it will be focused on all the opportunities offered by this technology in the environmental and energy sector.

Distributed Ledger Technologies (DLTs from now on) and, in particular, blockchain technology have the potential of transforming the energy sector. The World Economic Forum released a joint report identifying more than 65 blockchain use cases for the environment, including new business models for energy markets and, even more, moving carbon credits or renewable energy certificates onto the blockchain.

Its defining features are its distributed and immutable ledger and advance cryptography, which enable the transfer of a range of assets among parties securely and inexpensively without third-party intermediaries. Blockchain provides a new, decentralized and global computational infrastructure that is transforming many existing processes in business, governance and society, offering many opportunities to address multiple environmental challenges such al climate change, biodiversity loss and water scarcity.

Due to increasing integration of Distributed Energy Resources (DERs), many consumers have become prosumers, who can both generate and consume energy. As generation of DERs can be unpredictable and intermittent, prosumers may decide to store their surplus energy using storage energy devices, or supply others who are in energy deficit. This energy trading is called Peer-to-Peer (P2P) energy trading, and it is a novel paradigm of energy system generation where people can generate their own energy from (Renewable Energy Sources) RES in dwellings, offices and factories, and share it locally with each other. Waste heat and cold can be also traded in a similar way to energy from RES. One of the main contributions of DLTs in the scope of P2P Energy trading is to register all the transactions in a secure and non-mutable way, and to simplify the metering and billing system of the P2P energy trading market.

In the scope of the SO WHAT project, CARTIF has been involved in the definition of the business model linked with the use of Blockchain to exchange waste heat and cold. Besides, CARTIF has worked in a research internal project called OptiGrid which main aim was the development of innovative solutions in the scope of the smart grids. CARTIF is also working in a project called Energy Chain (subcontracted by Alpha Syltec Ingeniería) to jointly develop a platform to allow energy trading between prosumers. Both OptiGrid and Energy Chain are projects financed by the “Instituto de Competitividad e Innovación Empresarial” (ICE) and are focused on the use of blockchain as a driver to deploy platforms devoted to energy trading. In the scope of Energy Chain, Alpha Syltec Ingeniería will also develop machine learning algorithms that will interact with the blockchain platform providing useful data about generation and demand.

The use of blockchain in the scope of SmartCities is clear due to its applicability to transfer information in a secure and immutable way, reducing (and even removing) the amount of intermediaries. Blockchain can be used in multiple ways apart from the aforementioned one: it can push the use of electric vehicle (e.g., P2P Electric Vehicle Charging), it can be used as a driver of public empowerment (e.g., increasing the security level, the transparency and the reliability of elections, online surveys, referenda, etc.)…

Other examples of the use of blockchain is its use as a driver of off-set carbon footprint processes, increasing the transparency and security of the transactions, and its use to improve the traceability and transparency of green energy in relation to the Guarantee of origin (GoO). One example of the use of Blockchain in this sense is ClimateTrade, which main aim is to help companies to achieve carbon neutrality by offering them their carbon offsetting services.

Cities as New York and states as West Virginia have used blockchain to exchange energy or to vote using the mobile phone, Estonia is using it to manage personal data, and Dubai’s Smart City Program has addressed more than 500 blockchain projects that will change the way to interact with the city. Blockchain is a reality, and is here to stay.