Coal extraction began about 100 years ago in Waterschei (Belgian Limburg) and the mines continued operating until 1987. It is at this symbolic site that the first stone was laid today for the second building in EnergyVille. EnergyVille is where researchers from KU Leuven, VITO, UHasselt and imec are working on making the transition from ‘black’ energy to a sustainable energy system. EnergyVille is in the process of becoming one big laboratory, complete with solar panels, batteries, energy-generating bike paths, thermal and electrical power labs, energy networks between the buildings – and much more. Jef Poortmans, Scientific Director Photovoltaics at imec and R&D strategy coordinator for EnergyVille, explains what makes this project so unique.
A little bit of history
The EnergyVille buildings are located at the former Waterschei-Genk mine. The Waterschei coal mine was just one of seven mines in the Kempen coal mining basin where coal was extracted from 1907 to 1987. The mine’s impressive main building is still there. Visitors are able to relive the mine’s history by listening to the stories told by old mineworkers in the museum.
We now know that the extensive burning of coal – resulting in the release of CO2 – causes the temperature to rise on Earth. In addition, the combustion of coal releases fine dust particles into the atmosphere, which are harmful for our health. We also know that green energy – sun, wind, geothermal, etc. – is the future. For this reason, the former mine site has been transformed into an industry park where researchers are able to work together on green energy in EnergyVille, and where energy companies can set up operations to create a single unified hotspot working on all things related to energy.
The old Waterschei-Genk mine site
Imec to relocate its PV research to EnergyVille
EnergyVille is where researchers from KU Leuven, VITO, UHasselt and imec all work together. Each organization contributes its own area of expertise. KU Leuven, for instance, provides its knowledge about high-voltage DC networks, network design, modeling and control. VITO, on the other hand, has a great deal of expertise about thermal networks, monitoring systems, market organization and scenario development. And UHasselt uses its strong background in material synthesis (for PV, batteries) and reliability studies of components.
Poortmans: “Imec will be relocating its research into PV, batteries and power electronics to EnergyVille. For us, this move represents a unique opportunity to test out our advanced components at a system level – and in doing so, we are able to make good use of our partners’ knowledge. For example, we can see that it is becoming increasingly important for us to optimize solar cells for ‘real life’ circumstances and not just for standard conditions. And that is something that we can develop ideally in an environment such as EnergyVille.”
Last year, imec merged with the digital research center, iMinds. Poortmans: “By doing so, we brought additional areas of expertise on board that supplement the extensive range of technology and knowledge at EnergyVille: data communication, data-processing and security. In the energy networks of the future, huge amounts of data will have to be exchanged so that we can establish the status of the energy network and keep track of the way this distributed system is performing. To do that, you need a high-performance data communication system. After all, one often tends to forget that data is not the same thing as usable information: you need to apply smart algorithms to data in order to be able to do something useful with it. And all of that needs to be carried out securely.”
Unique in the world
The greatest strength of EnergyVille is also its greatest challenge. Poortmans: “This initiative is unique in the world. Nowhere else will you find a project that extends so broadly across the value chain. We are going to develop a multi-energy network (electrical and thermal), from material to component, on various levels (system, nanogrid, microgrid), up to and including a full-scale network that will be demonstrated on the campus itself. We will be building a city in miniature, including features such as energy-generating bike paths between the buildings. But at the same time, the broad nature of this project is its greatest challenge. We will have to make the right choices, which will mean aligning our research efforts perfectly on every level.”
The first stone
The first building in EnergyVille – for KU Leuven and VITO researchers – opened in September 2016. It is an energy-neutral building, complete with laboratories and offices. In actual fact, EnergyVille is one big lab, featuring solar panels, battery (testing) systems, recharging terminals for electric cars, a weather station (for linking the weather conditions with the energy output of the PV modules), an electric network emulator, a thermo-technical lab and so on.
Poortmans: “The first stone for EnergyVille II will be laid on 2 May. At the beginning of 2018 we will be moving about 35 imec researchers to the new location, along with a number of UHasselt scientists. Once we are there, the projects we will be working on include developing innovative interconnection technology for PV modules (silicon and thin film); testing new materials for thin-film PV; and developing safe, reliable batteries with enhanced energy and power density. Thermal and electrical networks will also be installed between the two buildings, along with an energy storage system. We will be able to test all of the ideas and concepts produced by the research partners at EnergyVille I and II – and ultimately on the whole campus.”
Bed & Breakfast
Poortmans appreciates the many opportunities provided by the EnergyVille collaboration and environment and is also working on the idea of building two model houses at the site: “I’ve given them the provisional names of E² and E³ houses. The EnergyVille researchers can use the facilities to combine all of the various technologies to demonstrate to the public and the energy companies how they view the future. Whereas the EnergyVille buildings are still mainly about demonstrations and testing technology, the E² and E³ houses will need to be genuinely finished products, with their own independent energy production, connections to the thermal and electricity networks, storage capacity, etc. The houses may even have to be used to accommodate foreign guests or residents from companies who stay on the campus. This will give them a real ‘touch and feel’ of the developments at EnergyVille.”
Getting everyone up to cruising speed
This means that from 2018 onwards, all of the researchers will be located under one roof. Yet Poortmans suspects that it may take until 2020 before they are fully up and running: “Of course it won’t simply be enough to have everyone alongside each other physically. The biggest challenge will be to align all of the different research activities perfectly with each other and to reconcile the various ‘cultures’. For example, imec researchers typically work according to set programs, whereas our partners have a more project-based culture. It will be quite an exercise – based on a number of clearly defined applications – to establish the right specs and gear the research we do to match those guidelines. But we have already begun this exercise and it is very important that we take the time to get things right. That way we can all work toward clearly defined objectives.”
Although that promises to be a lot of work, EnergyVille will soon be ready to show the world that not only is green energy the future, but it is also economically achievable and livable.
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