Energy systems integration puts electrical contractors at the center of future energy uses

Climate neutrality by 2050 will not be achieved by resting exclusively on one energy source for each sector and by working in silos. This is the premise upon which the Commission has based its latest communication, paving the way for an overhaul of current energy systems. 

The Strategy for Energy Systems Integration is the main document, showing the direction towards the system-level change necessary for climate neutrality by 2050, and it was accompanied by the dedicated Hydrogen Strategy. This modern concept is defined as “the coordinated planning and operation of the energy system ‘as a whole’, across multiple energy carriers, infrastructures, and consumption sector”. Hydrogen is a part of this strategy, as its availability and uses are especially low, leading the Commission to set out a specific strategy, meant to scale up its production and consumption. Energy system integration is an eagerly-awaited pillar of decarbonisation policy that will spur Europe into a more modern and less linear energy system. While circularity and efficiency are heading this initiative, electrification itself (i.e. not just as the most efficient solution) is featured here in great lengths. Indeed, Commission has recognised that electricity is the most efficient energy carrier to power a large share of needs and foresees electricity meeting 50% of EU final electricity consumption by 2050. 

This is a landmark initiative for electrical contractors, as the human capital behind electrification. As more end-uses will be electrified, demand for electrical work will rise and new areas of work will emerge. With newer and more electrical installations around us, electrical contractors will be the keystone of our clean energy system.  They will become indispensable as their skillsets will have evolved and, more crucially, broadened to include novel digital skills, critical to handle the interoperable and smart electric technologies that will power our lives in the near future.

Buildings as hubs for system integration

Buildings will need to be electrified as much as possible. They currently represent 36% of EU CO2 emissions and are often housing old and inefficient appliances. In particular, heating and cooling make up the most energy-intensive sub-sector and will need to be addressed head-on. Where possible, electric solutions should be the priority. Indeed, electric heat-pumps have an energy efficiency rating that cannot be matched elsewhere, and offer the possibility for users to have an implicit energy market participation by reacting to price signals and adjusting consumption to renewables generation throughout the day. While heating and cooling accounts for the most emissions, buildings have the potential to go further than just reduce their emissions. 

Indeed, our buildings can be powered by their own electricity or feed it to the grid when it is not needed. Solar panels have become one of the cheapest ways to generate power and can be installed on most roofs, whether it’s single houses or commercial and office buildings. With solar power, buildings can become a climate solution rather than a problem. Decentralising power generation and enabling self-consumption offers interesting answers to energy transition questions. With consumers, or prosumers at this point, producing and using their own electricity that does not have to rely on the grid, the variability of renewables can be better managed and congestion avoided, all the while limiting losses associated with transmission and distribution. 

Electrified buildings will also support the decarbonisation of the transport sector. With about 80%-95% of charging happening inside buildings, electro-mobility will rely on the built environment for its development. Public charging stations are important for range anxiety and consumer acceptance, but charging in buildings, at home or at the workplace, will enable system integration and comes with added benefits. If we consider the two previous steps in electrification, heating and solar power, electric vehicles can easily fit in this local or building-specific energy system. Electric vehicles will be able to absorb renewable power when production is at its peak (and when demand is low) and feed it back to the house or to the grid when demand is highest, all the while providing zero-emissions mobility in between. 

At the crossroads of heating and cooling, renewable electricity generation and zero-emission transport, buildings have an incredible potential to support the wider decarbonisation of Europe. Not only can we reduce buildings’ GHG emissions but they can turn around to support emissions reductions in other sectors, traditionally “hard to decarbonise”. 

Finally, fully electrified buildings are the most consumer-empowering pathway to carbon neutrality. With their own generation capacity, able to connect to most of their own power needs, consumers are truly in the driver’s seat, steering their energy consumption and actively engaging in the energy transition.

Supporting policies 

First and foremost, the Renovation Wave should be a key initiative to support electrification in buildings across Europe, including all aspects covered above. The Commission has thus far been silent about its shape and financial endowment but we hope they will match the ambitions of this of this initiative: doubling renovation rates across Europe while contributing to climate-neutrality.

Interestingly, the Primary Energy Factor (PEF) is on track to (finally!) be revised by 2021. Building decarbonisation ambitions call for sound comparison tools based on life-cycle approaches. An updated PEF will contribute to better informed choices reflecting the current state of electricity production and electric technologies, and re the true benefits of renewables.

Scaling up renewable generation capacity still underpins electrification ambitions. To this end, several policy tools will be mobilised such as the Offshore Renewable Strategy, potential green public procurement criteria, and removing barriers through the revision of the Renewable Energy Directive.

Transport will also benefit from the Renovation Wave, which is supposed to facilitate the rollout of EV charging points in buildings, an aspect that is too weak in current legislation. Further, the Commission repeated the Green Deal announcement of its intention to support the rollout of 1 million charging points by 2025 through various existing funding instruments. The Green Deal also set out revision dates for the Alternative Fuels Infrastructure Directive and the Trans-European Networks Regulation for Transport, which will be key for the future of mobility and to accelerate the deployment of public charging infrastructure, including fast charging along our motorway networks. Besides cars and trucks, ships will also be catered for with possible requirements for shore-side electricity. 

Missing policy

System integration is a steppingstone towards climate neutrality that will also make our lives and homes more confortable, with smart homes and automation, and improve our health, by reducing the pollutants around us. However, while many new and emerging technologies have been rightfully addressed with drastic scale-up strategies, there is one key aspect that has flown under the radar. Electrification of buildings, with its many electric devices and on-site power generation, requires strong electrical systems and wiring inside the buildings.

Policymaker have recognised the need to reinforce our grids to cope with increased power demand but our buildings need the same attention. Both grids and buildings across Europe often suffer from their age, and were built at a time when we had only a limited number of electric devices. In order to accommodate heat-pumps, EV chargers, and the many electric appliances we now use on a daily basis, electrical systems and wires must be modernised and renovated.

In Germany, 70% of buildings rely on electrical systems that are 35 years old or more. As a result the switch boxes are too small and the wiring is too weak to keep up with modern and smart living (Source: ZVEH). In France, 2/3 of residential housing built over 15 years ago have electrical safety shortcomings (Source: GRESEL). More worryingly, a recent survey showed that electrical fires account for 25-30% of all domestic fires, an increase of 5 -10% in the last 10 year, which seems linked to ageing systems (Source: FEEDS). 

Electrical systems are the unsung heroes of system integration at the building level, and must be renovated, especially in the case of deep renovations and as the EU is planning an actual Renovation Wave, to make the above building decarbonisation policies a reality. Further, future-proofing our buildings entails strong electrical abilities that can also enable the digital transition, on top of the energy transition.