Speaking the language of energy

IntegrCiTy aims to take a big picture view of energy production and consumption

Today I am interviewing Massimiliano Capezzali about IntegrCiTy, a project designed to optimize energy use in cities. The first question I ask is, “what does IntegrCiTy mean?” Massimiliano explains that it is actually a portmanteau made from ‘integration’ and ‘city.’ He elaborates by telling me that the project aims to devise methodologies to use energy networks in a more integrated fashion. He goes on to emphasise that the project uses co-simulation approaches which implement modern numerical approaches. I stare a little blankly for a moment, “could you break that down for me?” Massimiliano was thankfully happy to oblige.

The project is a reaction to the way energy networks are managed in cities

Massimiliano pauses for a moment and then says, “in the simplest terms the project is a reaction to the way energy networks are managed in cities.” He explains that (irrespective of whether we’re looking at natural gas, electricity or thermal heating) these systems are planned, operated and monitored in completely separate ways with no regard to each other. He calls this a “silo like approach.” The problem with this approach is that there is little exploration of how these systems could work together. He then outlines the benefits of an integrated approach: when systems are integrated it leads to more robust, economical and sustainable energy networks. I realize for me to really understand this, I need to get a better grasp of integration.

Massimiliano tries to clarify the concept of integration through an example: I am told to picture a neighbourhood where natural gas is the main energy source, then I have to imagine, for sustainability purposes, we want to decrease the use of natural gas in this neighbourhood. So, we might want to develop a district heating system powered by renewable energies. He then says, “does that mean these two energy sources are now in conflict or can we get them to work together?”

The idea isn’t to throw something away but to use it to sustain the implementation of something new

When you have a conventional approach these two energy sources would compete in a zero-sum fashion: either we have natural gas, or we replace it completely with environmentally friendly district heating. However, when you tackle the problem by looking for synergies you find ways to make them work together. Massimiliano says “you could change the boilers with cogeneration units which allows the natural gas system to generate electricity. This electricity can then be used for other non-heating purposes.” Having done this thought experiment I now see how conflict between energy systems can be avoided. Massimiliano says, “the idea isn’t to throw something away but to use it to sustain the implementation of something new.”

Massimiliano notes that an integrated approach not only avoids conflict about the type of energy system that is to be used, but also conflicts related to physical space. He explains that as cities become ever denser, the networks underground have to make use of limited physical space. Therefore, we have to use the underground networks in a more rational way. Massimiliano tells me that when you look for synergies you could end up investing less; instead of just adding network after network you look at how you can use what already exists to optimise your new network. He says, “in the end you can end up investing less to produce the exact same amount of energy.”

Massimiliano stresses that there are many ways in which networks can all help each other, “for example, when looking at the size of the heat pumps for a thermal energy system we want to make sure they are the appropriate size. So, we keep the natural gas system as a backup for only the coldest days of the year.” This avoids overinvestment in heat pumps and a loss of reliability. I say to Massimiliano, this sounds like the same kind of thought process that led to the creation of hybrid cars. He responds, “yes absolutely it’s like the thinking behind a hybrid car or a bi-fuel car.”

The implementation of a co-simulation framework was the main issue

Now that I have reduced the concept to something I can grasp, I begin to think about the project challenges. Massimiliano states there are two types of challenges: technical and non-technical. Beginning with the technical, Massimiliano tells me that the implementation of a co-simulation framework was the main issue. I think to myself, “what is that?” Thankfully, he immediately says, “it’s one of the most advanced simulation tools to see how an energy system would work.” Apparently, there are many simulation tools for energy networks, however they all simulate energy networks as separate entities without regard to what other networks exist; so far there were no tools to simulate how these networks would work together.

Massimiliano stresses that, from a coding point of view, creating the co-simulation tool was a real challenge. They had to create a database which represented cities accurately. So, not just addresses and locations, but also energy networks and all the complexities associated them. I realize this data interprets information coming from all sorts of different sources. Massimiliano explains that in order to create this database, data with different attributes had to be integrated, “you don’t describe an electric network in the same way as a district heating network.”

Massimiliano emphasizes the creation of the database also necessitated the creation of a common language. He says the project expanded City GML (a data language designed to describe the features found in a city). He states that the past City GML was only focused on buildings, but now it also takes into account energy technologies and energy networks.

Having covered the big technical challenge, we pivot to the non-technical challenges. Massimiliano tells me that one peculiarity of the project was that in some respects the technical problems faced mirrored the non-technical: they were language based. He tells me about the decision to include industrial as well as institutional partners as full partners in the project, “in fact the utilities companies are a part of the consortium.” This meant yet again a common language had to be created for people coming from different industries such as the natural gas sector or the electricity sector. Massimiliano says, “sometimes people who were even working in the same company in these different sectors had never talked to each other.” Nevertheless, Massimiliano highlights how these guys made a great effort to work together to achieve a common goal, “we were really lucky with our partners.”

Having everyone as full partners creates a sense of trust

Once they had a common language, they could really talk about creating efficiencies in their respective energy systems. It gave all the partners an understanding of each other’s operational parameters and priorities. This all sounds really great, but I ask Massimiliano, “how did you persuade all of these different actors to come to the table?” He highlights that having everyone as full partners creates a sense of trust. He says, “you’re not trying to tell them you’re the one with the solution, instead you say, let’s work on this together.” I get the sense that respect is a very important element in Massimiliano’s approach to his colleagues and partners.

Massimiliano emphasizes that “it’s so important to have a step by step approach where you move forward together.” The outcome of this step by step collaboration is the IntegrCiTy tool. It is a decision support tool designed for engineers involved in the planning of urban areas. The tool allows the engineer to take a proposed scenario and test it in a simulation. The simulation takes all energy vectors into consideration; this scenario is then validated by the co-simulation process to show whether the design can be practically implemented. Using the tool, the engineers can create different versions of a plan and observe the differences in the energy balance and the emissions produced. Afterwards, they can take these models to policy makers who can see the quantifiable attributes of the given scenario. Massimiliano tells me “then they can go back and refine the simulations, it is an iterative tool.” He adds this is a collaborative process, the scenarios you crunch within the tool are co-created.

We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel, we’re trying to get all the wheels to turn at the same time

I think this all sounds great, so I say, “is the tool ready for implementation in real urban settings?” Massimiliano explains that they are not ready to be used just yet, not because of any flaw with the tool, but we’re not quite at the point where we’re going to be switching from the older energy networks to the newer hybrid ones. So, I ask, “when do you think it will be right time then?” He tells me that depending on the country it could be anywhere from two to seven years. It doesn’t seem particularly far in the future to me.

Massimiliano finishes by telling me that the IntegreCiTy tool could be incredibly useful, “we’re already seeing solar panels and such things really coming up, so there absolutely will be a need for this tool which seeks to find synergies in energy systems.” He finishes by saying, “actually the specific parts of what we’re doing is not new, what is new is the synergy. We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel, we’re trying to get all the wheels to turn at the same time.”

Read more about IntegrCiTy here.

Read more about the ERA-NET Cofund Smart Cities and Communities (ENSCC) call here.


Massimiliano Capezzali




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European Union

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 857160.