Ecoregions ready to help European industrial hotspots make huge emission cuts


Industrial areas across Europe could make big strides in reducing their greenhouse gas emissions thanks to the latest expert advice on how to transform into ‘ecoregions’ – an energy sharing partnership that unites the needs of different sectors and municipalities.

European industries accounts for 25% of all energy demand and 50% of the total cooling and heating demand on the continent – with the bulk of this power coming from fossil fuels. However, this huge carbon footprint could soon be slashed if more manufacturing hotspots become ecoregions.

“Waste [energy] from one company can be a useful asset for someone else,” says Sergio Pinotti from Spinergy SRL, an energy efficiency expert working on an ecoregion in Bergamo, Italy.

Pinotti says that when several companies collaborate to share waste energy within an ecoregion they can greatly reduce fossil fuel consumption, largely by supplying surplus power into heating and cooling networks, as well as using more renewables. In Bergamo, this approach saw waste heat from one steelworks company produce enough electricity for 700 families – ensuring a CO2 emissions reduction of 10,000 tonnes.​

However, many European businesses still remain unaware of the potential energy savings on their doorstep, a challenge that the R-ACES project is hoping to address. The EU-backed project wants to raise awareness of ecoregions and has created several practical tools to share lessons learnt from existing ecoregions, like Bergamo.

One tool is a digital self-assessment that collects a company’s energy use and on what surplus power or heat is available.This information is then combined with a smart energy management platform that allows power consumption and production to be allocated to specific installations or stakeholders elsewhere, creating huge efficiency improvements across a region – R-ACES aims for at least a 10% reduction of CO2 emissions for each ecoregion it helps establish.

Pinotti is working with R-ACES to test its tools in Italy and says the self-assessment tool and energy management platform helped strengthen the Bergamo ecoregion because it ensured effective knowledge exchange among its stakeholders.

“We needed to come together in order to improve our energy efficiency,” he says, adding that ecoregions are critical solutions to reducing Europe’s fossil fuel demand. “If we learn how to share the waste [energy], we will reduce the use of fossil fuels and we’ll be become more independent.”


Energy security, renewables and saving costs

The need for more ecoregions is also growing as Europe faces another summer of extreme weather and uncertain gas supply following the outbreak of war in Ukraine. Paul Robbrecht from the Provincial Authority Antwerp (POM Antwerp) works on ecoregions in Belgium and is urging more countries to embrace these energy partnerships because of the opportunities they possess.

“The energy transition is an essential step for industry to meet legal obligations, reduce the impact on the climate, secure energy supplies and potentially save costs,” Robbrecht explains, adding that ecoregions are a catalyst for more businesses to move in this direction.

Additionally, when more companies collaborate to share energy they also create a stronger business case for more renewable generation. Robbrecht says the main share of future energy consumption must be filled with renewable energy and ecoregions offer many opportunities to increase this kind of clean power generation.

“Major steps can be taken in the short-term, for example by providing large roofs of commercial buildings with [solar] PV. Wind energy also plays a major role, although obtaining permits remains a major issue. Finally, residual heat must be recovered as much as possible for use in heat networks,” he says.

Robbrecht is also working with R-ACES to support Belgium’s Kanaalkant industrial park in its transformation into an ecoregion. It is one of the largest industrial zones in Flanders, covering 400 hectares with over 800 companies and 9,000 workers – a size that needed expert support to help establish energy sharing.

“There is a need to take major steps in climate adaptation,” says Robbrecht, adding that R-ACES’ supported the Belgian ecoregion by allowing more effective collaboration between the needed stakeholders, such as the local government and relevant companies. “The objective of the project is to reduce the use of energy and to increase the share of renewable energy, among other things, by allowing companies to cooperate with each other.”


Danes also dare to dream big

Along with Italy and Belgium, Denmark is another ecoregion frontrunner in Europe and the country hopes to roll out more energy sharing partnerships in its industrial areas.

The country already has one ecoregion in Nyborg, where 96% of the regions’ houses are kept warm by surplus heat generated by nearby industries. Meanwhile, work is currently underway in the south of the country to bring together four different municipalities in a new energy sharing project. Charlotte Baumgartner from Energy Cluster Denmark, a national innovation network, is working on both these projects and explains that the first steps to establish new ecoregions have begun to emerge.

“First of all, we decide to make a digital mapping of everything that is in a region,” Baumgartner says, which requires detailing the type of power grid, transmissions, industries, and energy consumption patterns in an area. “Once we make this digital mapping, we’ll be looking at digging into all the industries and looking at seasonal temperature surplus heat. And in that way we are able to create business cases for each single industry and their connection to the grid.”

In Nyborg, a similar approach saw surplus industrial heat generated in autumn and used for the winter season. This contributed to the ecoregion extending how far it shares surplus energy and eventually saw the municipality also support ‘satellite towns’ surrounding Nyborg.

“We are able to create cities and areas where there’s very little CO2 emissions,” says Baumgartner, who is also involved in R-ACES’s work in supporting the roll out of Denmark’s ecoregions. She explains that the project developed critical solutions to the main obstacles for ecoregions, notably building trust among a diversity of stakeholders with complex commercial and energy needs.

“If we need to make some kind of contract between an industry and a municipality and the district heating company to assure that we actually re-use or recover the waste heat, then there needs to be trust,” Baumgartner says,adding that unclear or lack of legislation is often a “very large barrier” to ecoregion collaboration.

R-ACES has also developed a legal decision tool to help here and it includes advice on how to set price mechanisms for energy cooperation, along with guides on other important regulatory aspects, like supplier licensing. Baumgartner believes this is a crucial starting point for stakeholders interested in setting up an ecoregion because it also lays the foundations for the project’s other tools to support ecoregion development.

“When we talk about industries, when we talk about communities, when we talk about the local district heating companies – they can all use the [R-ACES] tools to accelerate [ecoregion] collaboration,” she says.

Author of this article is Steve Gillman. The article is published in the online magazine Illuminem Voices, a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Energy & Sustainability writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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