The previous Swedish hamlet teaches classes for the way forward for clear vitality – Bloomberg

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A thousand year old Swedish village could become a blueprint for the local energy networks of the future.

Simris with around 200 inhabitants has shown that it is technologically possible to operate independently of the national network. The villagers use locally produced renewable energy stored in freezer-sized batteries in their homes.

At a time when the risk of blackouts increases, this experiment could be repeated elsewhere if the European Union has legislation to support such projects. The households in Simris take advantage of the falling costs for renewable energies and batteries – and satisfy the desire for self-sufficiency. Significantly lower utility bills are an added bonus.

Lars Goran Lefvert and his wife Karin on April 19th in front of their home in Simris, Sweden.

Photographer: Mikael Sjoberg / Bloomberg

“It just feels right to use whatever comes from heaven for free,” said Lars Goran Lefvert, who moved to Simris from Stockholm when his wife Karin retired. You have 20 solar panels over two buildings that frame a grassy courtyard. Your residential battery is kept in the outbuilding. Excess energy will be bought back to the German energy giant EON SE, which operates the local grid and is setting up the project as an experiment with EU funds.

Electricity is traditionally supplied by large power plants using fossil fuels or nuclear energy. The electricity is distributed to smaller distribution networks and to end users via national networks. Concerns about climate change and energy security are increasingly challenging this business model. The utility companies required by law rely on renewable solutions, learn from experimental projects and find out how they can earn money with them.

The growth of renewable energies is bringing cleaner electricity and allowing people to explore new supply and demand models. Villagers in places like Simris, where wind and sun are abundant, have taken advantage of falling battery costs and government incentives to invest in solar panels. Now they are increasingly selling their electricity back to utility companies. Others experimenting with local networks are the German Hindelang, a village of 5,000 people.

Green base

Driver for participation in a sample of 24 European Community energy projects

Source: European Commission JRC 2019

Sweden's Provence

Simris sits on rolling hills about a mile from the Baltic Sea on the southeastern tip of the country, an area known as Sweden's Provence. Past and future merge in front of a whitewashed stone church, in which rune stones from the 11th century stand next to a charging station for electric vehicles.

During a recent visit, the skies were blue and the wind brisk, which provided ample free green electricity. Real-time data on the EON website showed that wind and solar plants generated significantly more than the entire village consumed.

It was a steep learning curve, said Jorgen Rosvall, the project manager at EON. One of the biggest challenges was keeping the right frequency in the system and balancing supply and demand by using everything from solar and wind turbines to heat pumps, batteries and hot water tanks in the homes. Meanwhile, the villagers have remained customers of their electricity suppliers.

A Volvo charging near the stone church.

Photographer: Mikael Sjoberg / Bloomberg

“It would be great if Simris could serve as a blueprint for other villages,” said Rosvall. “We are working on other projects, not only in Sweden, but everywhere where EON is active.”

Vattenfall AB, the largest energy company in the Nordic region, is also exploring this corner of the industry.

“It's an important piece of the puzzle, but it won't solve all of the major challenges we face,” said Anna Borg, the utility's executive director.

Peer-to-Peer Grids

Off-grid communities could emerge across Europe if a new law goes into effect later this year that allows peer-to-peer energy contracts.

The most recent estimates by the European Commission in 2016 indicated that 17% of wind turbines and 21% of solar projects could be owned by citizen-run energy communities by the end of the decade. Another study from 2016 predicted that almost half of EU households will produce renewable energy by 2050.

A lot has happened since then. Renewable energy costs have fallen and the EU has set itself a climate neutral goal by the middle of the century. The block's Clean Energy Package recognizes the right of citizens to get directly involved in the industry and formally establishes a legal framework for so-called “energy communities”.

Solar panels and a wind turbine outside the village of Simris.

Photographer: Mikael Sjoberg / Bloomberg

“The Clean Energy Package provides a solid foundation for broader social engagement in energy systems, without which we cannot meet our zero-zero ambitions,” said Iain Soutar, lecturer in human geography at the University of Exeter in the UK. “It is important that the electricity markets keep pace with technological and political developments, and the CEP provides much-needed stimulus for regulatory changes in the Member States.”

Europe will be the leader in decentralized energy. As older coal, gas and nuclear power plants come to a standstill, the average station capacity will shrink. In 2050, according to BloombergNEF, the global median will be 158 megawatts, one sixth of today's output. In Europe it will drop to just 32 megawatts, with more than two thirds of the supply being fed into small local networks rather than large national networks.

Nevertheless, the EU has highlighted the risk to security of supply and stated that local initiatives must continue to be connected to the main network in the event of an emergency. Growing mini-grids across myriad communities will be a daunting task.

Rolling blackouts in Texas in February showed that even a roof full of solar panels won't help if homeowners don't also have the right storage devices. This was illustrated by an online video clip of the single house lit by a Tesla power wall in a darkened neighborhood of Houston.

A boom in German solar energy caused homeowners to seriously consider local energy solutions, said Fredrik Lundstrom, program manager at the Swedish Energy Agency. More and more people who are referred to as “prosumers” want their power to stay in the neighborhood instead of being fed into the regional grid.

“The power system works more like a laptop,” said Lundstrom. “If you unplug it, you can still work on it.”

Helen Tornblom on her electric bike in front of the former village school.

Photographer: Mikael Sjoberg / Bloomberg

In Simris, Helen Tornblom, who lives in the former red brick village school built in 1912, is looking forward to the months ahead, as her electricity bill has a substantial credit. And she's still thinking about how to save energy.

“I changed my main door because I was so tired of the heat that I lost it,” she said. “And insulated all of my windows.”


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