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The Energy Challenges Faced by European Cities

European cities are at the forefront of the global energy crisis, grappling with high consumption rates, sustainability issues, and the urgent need to transition to more resilient, net-zero energy systems. Despite their efforts, these urban areas often consume more energy than they produce, leading to significant environmental and economic challenges.

Photo of an urban street at night with a neon lightning bolt shape in front

One of the primary reasons for the high energy consumption in European cities is their dense populations and extensive infrastructure. Urban areas are characterised by high-density living spaces, extensive public transportation networks, and a concentration of commercial and industrial activities. This density, while beneficial for reducing transportation emissions and fostering economic activity, inherently demands more energy. Moreover, the diverse climate across Europe necessitates significant energy for heating and cooling. Northern regions require extensive heating during long winters, while southern areas consume large amounts of energy for air conditioning during hot summers.

In addition to climatic challenges, many European cities struggle with aging infrastructure that is less energy-efficient. Older buildings often lack proper insulation and modern heating systems, leading to higher energy consumption to maintain comfortable living conditions. Furthermore, Europe’s vast array of economic activities, from manufacturing to services, are all energy-intensive, with the need to power industries, commercial buildings, and residential areas around the clock adding to the overall energy demand.

To address these challenges, the European Union has implemented several policies aimed at achieving net-zero energy. The European Green Deal, for instance, aims to make Europe the first climate-neutral continent by 2050, with measures to boost the efficient use of resources, transition to a circular economy, restore biodiversity, and cut pollution. The Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD) requires member states to establish and enforce minimum energy performance standards for buildings, promote the use of renewable energy, and ensure that all new buildings are nearly zero-energy by the end of 2020. Additionally, the Renewable Energy Directive (RED II) sets ambitious targets for the use of renewable energy sources, aiming for at least 32% of energy consumption in Europe to come from renewable sources by 2030. The Smart Cities and Communities European Innovation Partnership (EIP-SCC) further promotes the deployment of smart city solutions, integrating information and communication technologies (ICT) with energy, mobility, and environmental services to create scalable and replicable models for sustainable urban development.

An innovative concept gaining traction in Europe is Positive Energy Districts (PEDs). PEDs are urban areas that produce more energy than they consume, focusing on achieving net-positive energy balances through integrated planning, renewable energy generation, energy-efficient buildings, and smart energy management systems. The idea of PEDs emerged as a response to the growing need for sustainable urban development. Initial efforts focused on improving energy efficiency and integrating renewable energy sources at the neighbourhood level. Over time, the concept evolved to encompass holistic approaches, considering social, economic, and environmental aspects. PEDs utilise renewable energy sources like solar, wind, and geothermal energy, incorporate high-efficiency building designs and retrofits, and employ advanced ICT for real-time energy management and distribution. Community engagement is also a critical component, involving local stakeholders in planning and decision-making processes.

A pioneering project in this field is our BIPED (Building Intelligent Positive Energy Districts), which aims to demonstrate and validate PED concepts using advanced technologies. BIPED focuses on the integration of Local Digital Twins (LDTs) for the design, development, and operation of PEDs. Local Digital Twins are virtual replicas of physical urban environments that use real-time data to simulate, predict, and optimise energy flows and other urban processes. They enable better decision-making by providing detailed insights into the impact of different scenarios and interventions. BIPED uses LDTs to model and simulate energy performance at the district level (Brabrand in Aarhus, Denmark) considering factors like building orientation, energy demand, and renewable energy potential. These simulations inform the integration of renewable energy systems and energy-efficient technologies, ensuring that the district remains net-positive in energy production.

The benefits of BIPED's use of LDTs are substantial. Enhanced planning capabilities allow for precise and efficient urban planning by predicting the outcomes of various energy strategies. Cost efficiency is improved by identifying the most effective energy solutions before implementation. The scalability of this model provides a replicable framework that can be applied to other districts and cities, promoting widespread adoption of PEDs. Moreover, the sustainability of these districts is ensured through continuous monitoring and optimization, addressing long-term energy challenges.

European cities may face significant energy challenges, but with the right policies and innovative PED concepts, they can transition towards a more sustainable future. Leveraging Local Digital Twins offers a promising pathway to achieving net-positive energy balances and creating resilient urban environments. By embracing these advancements, European cities can lead the way in the global effort to combat climate change and promote sustainable development.

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BIPED is funded under the EU Horizon Europe Research and Innovation programme. Grant ID: 101139060

BIPED is funded under the EU Horizon Europe Research and Innovation programme. Grant ID: 101139060

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