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It is the same old problem. The large-scale distribution of renewable energy generation is required to mitigate the impacts of fuel poverty and climate change but these intermittent power sources push the grid to its limits or beyond them.

The solution is the same too. We must develop a more flexible power system to account for renewable energy fluctuations and allow for a new style of energy trading to incorporate a broad-scale of distributed electricity sources.

“These changes on both the demand and supply side impose new challenges to the management of energy systems, such as the variability and limited controllability of energy supply from renewables or increasing load variations over the day,” states a new report by Annex 67, a collaborative project supported by the Energy in Buildings and Communities program of the International Energy Agency (IEA-EBC).

“Consequently, managing the energy transition following the traditional energy system viewpoint would lead to a grid operation closer to its limits, with a possible consequent increase of the energy use at peak periods, requiring more complex control problems with shorter decision times and smaller error margins,” continues the report.

Efforts thus far have focused primarily on the modernization of transmission and distribution infrastructure to create “smart grids” that utilize artificial intelligence and energy storage to balance supply and demand optimally. Large-scale infrastructure redevelopment projects are slow, however, especially in this time of austerity, but there are other things we can do to increase the flexibility of our power systems without massive investment in the grid. The current rapid evolution of our buildings offers significant opportunities to increase flexibility and facilitate the expansion of distributed renewable energy.

Buildings represent approximately 40% of total, global energy consumption and reducing that consumption should be at the forefront of climate change and grid stabilization efforts. The emergence of smart buildings is providing these numerous demand-side entities with the intelligence to provide greater flexibility to the whole power system. The research conducted by the Annex 67 collaboration highlights opportunities that interactions between buildings and the energy infrastructure could offer. It evaluates building design and control beyond that of individual buildings to bring about the true potential of renewables to mitigate CO2-emissions on a large, aggregated scale.

“To understand and integrate the potential of energy flexible buildings in future energy systems, a holistic approach is needed harmonizing building and energy (both electrical and thermal) system engineering but also energy market design and even occupant interaction,” reads the report titled Energy Flexible Buildings: Energy flexibility as a key asset in a smart building future.

“However, extensive review studies carried out within IEA EBC Annex 67 demonstrate that this integration is hampering since a common terminology and methodology for characterization and labeling of Energy Flexibility in buildings is currently missing, both at the single building and at the clusters of buildings level,” the report continued.

There is, however, a significant skills shortage in the fields surrounding building to grid interaction, meaning building engineers are often not familiar with all technical aspects of energy networks and vice versa. The IEA-EBC initiative is creating a common language of flexibility indicators for building and electrical engineers. They hope the common language will foster greater interaction between these groups, leading to greater interaction between buildings and the grid.

“IEA EBC Annex 67 is developing a common methodology and terminology that will allow quantifying and communicate the Energy Flexibility of individual buildings and building clusters,” states the report. “By doing so, and based on scientific evidence, IEA EBC Annex 67 points out the importance to shift the attention from a static energy efficiency evaluation in single buildings to a dynamic CO2-efficiency optimization in an enlarged energy network context, using Energy Flexibility and control based energy performance labelling of buildings.”

The research demonstrates how the available “energy flexibility” of buildings and clusters of
buildings does not simply depend on technical solutions or available services, but on the integration and control of their systems, their interaction with occupants, and energy networks,
as well as external factors such as local climate and market conditions.
The researchers believe that mapping energy flexibility is the key to stimulating the necessary interaction between these different fields to trigger a new age of collaboration between building and grid technicians, and between buildings and the grid, for a greener and more energy secure future.

“By emphasizing Energy Flexibility, buildings are no longer only characterized only by their own energy efficiency. By emphasizing Energy Flexibility, we recognize buildings are able to interact with surrounding buildings and energy systems,” the report points out. “By exploiting their intrinsic potential for energy storage and demand response within their technical and comfort constraints and boundary conditions, buildings can provide Energy Flexibility to the surrounding energy networks.”