Energy transition in the built environment

Energy transition in the built environment
The department of Environmental Sciences is involved in several research projects on the future of urban energy systems. These projects focus mainly on sustainable provision of heating and cooling in urban environments. The department collaborates with a wide range of partners from other research institutes, industry, and civil society.

Thesis subjects related to our research on energy are:

3a A framework for predicting technology acceptance in new urban heating systems

The OU (department of Environmental Science) is conducting research into the acceptance of new forms of energy supply in the built environment. On the basis of literature research, a theoretical model has been drawn. This model predicts the share of neighborhood residents that will accept installing a technology, given the type of neighborhood, technology characteristics, and the approach that policy makers have chosen to implement it in the neighborhood.

The model now needs to be tested and calibrated in a larger number of cases. This would be very well suited for MSc. thesis work. The thesis research could consist of designing and conducting surveys and/or conducting interviews with major stakeholders in several neighborhoods around the country. The results of the thesis research would further the understanding of why people accept or reject technologies and will be used to further develop the model.

Contact: Stef Boesten MSc., Dr. Wilfried Ivens

3b. Collective heating systems and energy cooperatives

Over the past decades the Netherlands has seen a surge in the number of energy cooperatives. These cooperatives stimulated collective investments in insulation, wind turbines and solar photovoltaic panels. In moving away from natural gas, some energy cooperatives are exploring the possibilities of building collective heating systems. A large difference between a collective heating system and a shared wind turbine, is that a collective heating system requires participation of (nearly) all neighbours in a street or block, while a wind turbine can be built without every household participating. Examples of research questions:

  • How do energy cooperatives contribute to building collective heating systems?
  • What parallels are there between past collective renewable energy investments and what lessons can be taken to collective heating systems?
  • Are collective heating systems more likely to arise in neighbourhoods that have seen collective energy investments in the past?

Contact: Dr. Wilfried Ivens, Stef Boesten MSc.

3c. Open district heating systems

“Open” district heating (DH) systems are often named as a way to increase consumer satisfaction and decrease consumer prices in a district heating system. Parallel to electricity networks, open DH systems have multiple suppliers connected to the grid. Consumers can choose between these suppliers for their heat and switch when they see fit.
Examples of research questions:

  • Do open district heating systems potentially increase the share of renewable heat?
  • What areas in the Netherlands have sufficient demand and (sustainable) heat supply to warrant the creation of an op DH system?
  • How can different types of sources complement each other in terms of capacity available at different moments in time?

Contact: Dr. Wilfried Ivens, Stef Boesten MSc.

3d. Environmental impact of heat pumps in energy systems

Heat pumps use electricity to create high temperature flows using low temperature sources. This makes it possible to use 'low quality' sources like surface water, the soil and ambient air to heat homes and offices. It is expected that heat pumps will play a large role in the upcoming energy transition. There are some downsides to heat pumps. By extracting heat from the environment, they cool it down more than would naturally be the case. When heat pumps are used for cooling, they heat up the environment, which could aggravate climate change impacts. With the expected wide spread of heat pumps, it is important to anticipate their negative effects.
Specifically, recovery of thermal energy from surface water ecosystems via hydro thermal energy (HTE) systems (aquathermie) is expected to be one of the solutions that the Dutch society will apply in the energy transition. However, cold water discharge by HTE affects the temperature of a surface water body and thus the biological activity and the ecology in it. This impact may have a positive or a negative character. At the moment there is limited understanding regarding these effects. 
Previous master's research at the OU has provided some insight in the effect of thermal energy recovery on the ecology of a small, slow flowing freshwater ecosystem. A first estimate of the thermal effect of HTE on this stream was used to determine the (annual) effect on the ecology, based on three ecological indicators. This study showed that the positive impacts of HTE may not outweigh its negative impacts. However, it also paved the way for more research in this field. Research topics could cover: 

  • a.    Validating the existing impact model based on real life studies of local ecology in fresh water systems where HTE is implemented.
  • b.    Optimizing HTE system designs to minimize not only carbon emissions, but also impact on ecology.

Contact: Dr. Wilfried Ivens, Stef Boesten MSc.

3e Exchanging heat and cold in buildings

When phasing out natural gas, other sources of heat are needed. Increasingly well insulated houses often require active cooling to prevent overheating in summer. Currently this heat is ejected into the environment as waste. If this heat is stored in underground aquifers instead, it can be used to provide heating in winter. The total potential of using waste heat from cooling is estimated at about 30 % of total residential heat demand, but this figure is lacking scientific backing. This research would aim to increase understanding of the applicability of thermal exchange in residential buildings.
Research topics may include:

  • What is the total potential of heat and cold exchange in neighbourhoods?
  • What mix of buildings provides an optimum of exchange potential? E.g. offices, apartment buildings, schools, data centers, etc.
  • How large should the seasonal heat storage be to maximize potential energy exchange in a neighbourhood?

Contact: Dr. Wilfried Ivens, Stef Boesten MSc.

3f Building insulation and demand side management

With better insulated residences, it is no longer necessary to run the heater at high capacity to keep it pleasantly warm in the morning and the evening. To incorporate more renewable sources, it might be beneficial to start heating a bit earlier or later in the day. A well-insulated building will retain the heat, so it will still be comfortably warm when people are at home. Changing the demand of energy to match capacity is called demand side management. With an increasing number of buildings getting high-grade thermal insulation and getting connected to electric sources like heat pumps, demand side management has the potential to increase the use of renewable energy sources like solar and wind. Examples of research questions are:

  • How do different insulation measures effect the energy consumption profile throughout the day?
  • How flexible is the heating and cooling demand in a highly insulated building?
  • How does this effect the share of renewable energy sources that can be used in the total energy mix?
  • What is the effect of demand side management on the indoor thermal comfort?

Contact: Dr. Wilfried Ivens, Stef Boesten MSc.