A crowd in Hamburg participating in the My Smart Life project

A playground for energy

“We installed something completely new to Hamburg: photovoltaics with battery storage owned on a shared model by tenants for a whole apartment block,” says Matthias Ederhof, Board Member of citizen cooperative EnergieNetz-Hamburg (ENH).

“Through this demonstrator we were able to say, look this works, residents have cheaper energy and control through their dual roles as consumers and co-owners of the installation itself.”

Groundbreaking energy projects like this are as much about exploring citizens’ behaviour and trialling new business models as developing innovative technologies. Such projects, Hamburg believes, the fastest and most realistic way forward.

With little research available into practical smart city experiences and their implications at the local level, the city knew that if it was to find a path from today’s energy crisis to a smart, sustainable future, it needed to get answers to a wide range of essential questions.

Questions such as: what incentivises people to become an active part in the energy supply system? Are there blind spots in our legal system? How much potential lies in the monitoring of energy use?

Taking risks

When the city heard about a Horizon 2020 call for smart energy transition proposals, it was an enthusiastic bidder. This, it decided, offered the perfect opportunity to design a project that would answer all its questions by taking an integrated approach to developing new technological, social, commercial and governance solutions.

“We saw the need to change things in the energy sector and EU projects provide a big playground,” says Lukas Risch, Project Manager EU Affairs in the Senate Chancellery.

EU projects provide a big playground
— Lukas Risch

“It is rare to be given funds to experiment with and it meant we could get a lot of players around the table who don’t usually have money to spend in these playgrounds and work with ideas and in ways Hamburg hadn’t done before.”

Partnering with Nantes and Helsinki, Hamburg developed a winning proposal that would bring together all the actors needed to drive the energy transition, challenge accepted ways of doing things, make ground-breaking projects happen and learn what does and doesn’t work.

The five year, 18 million project was called My Smart Life – for good reason.

Alongside specific interventions – ‘smart solutions’ – to reduce carbon emissions and promote sustainability, the project also aimed to engage ‘smart people’ in the urban planning ecosystem and realise an innovative and dynamic ‘smart economy.’ The overarching goal of these three smart elements was to raise residents’ quality of life.

The way this holistic approach puts people front and centre is critical according to Professor Dr Joerg Knieling, Head of the Institute of Urban Planning and Regional Development at the HafenCity University in Hamburg.

“Smart city projects can be so focused on the technology that people get lost and forgotten, which is a danger, especially when they will use the technology in their daily lives. It isn’t easy but My Smart Life aimed to achieve it by including people not just as participants but also as co-creators, so they would have ownership of the solutions.”

people get lost and forgotten
— Joerg Knieling

HafenCity University, whose role was to analyse the governance of a smart city, was one of the 12 partners assembled by Hamburg in the My Smart Life consortium, which reflected the project’s cross-cutting approach to energy experiments and research studies.

The perfect urban testbed

When it came to deciding where the consortium’s work would be brought to life, a neighbourhood in the district of Bergedorf fitted the bill perfectly.

Not only was it a growing area with hundreds of new homes being built where new solutions could be integrated and trialled, it also had a district administration office keen to establish a new department to drive innovation – and already close to local residents.

These residents soon got the message that their neighbourhood was to become an urban testbed that they could be part of and benefit from. There was both an initial information campaign and subsequent ‘walks and talks’ at demonstrator sites.

Visitors at a pioneering district heating system based on hydrogen in Hamburg

These sites were all within three ‘intervention zones’ where the 59 My Smart Life actions took place, showcasing technological solutions connected to high-performance buildings, greater use of renewable energies and smart system management.

Mixing hydrogen with regular gas had not been done on this scale before
— Lukas Risch

One of the flagship actions was the photovoltaic solar panels with battery storage electricity system for 79 new apartments described earlier by Matthias Ederhof of ENH and based on lease agreements – to which 95% of tenants signed up.

This was one of many ENH-led projects demonstrating the benefits of its direct delivery, lease-based concept in buildings such as a school, apiary, bakery, and a sports centre.

Here, a new solar plant contributes to both the city’s climate resilience, saving 11 tonnes of CO2 a year, as well as the gymnastic federation owner’s bottom line. Having an agreement to buy power from ENH for a fixed price for 20 years safeguards the federation against rising energy prices.

An ever-greener gas grid

My Smart Life’s most technologically experimental project explored the possibility of operating combined heat and power systems with a share of hydrogen alongside natural gas, a potential game-changer.

Gasnetz Hamburg set up a hydrogen feed-in station and adapted the gas boilers of a grid-connected district heating system to hydrogen to serve 273 newly constructed apartments.

By proving that an energy mix with a hydrogen share of up to 30%, and likely more, can be used and existing infrastructure modified, the project paves the way for an ever-greener gas grid.

“This was perhaps the biggest success of all,” says Risch. “Mixing hydrogen with regular gas had not been done on this scale before. Hamburg has had a lot of interest in the technology from other cities and I think many companies will soon be ready to invest in it.”

As well as providing a blueprint for investment in hydrogen, this project was particularly useful to Professor Knieling’s research into how city administrations can best adapt to support urban testbeds.

We need to ... develop what we call experimental governance
— Joerg Knieling

“Where a city is testing complex and pioneering solutions like this again and again until they work, we need to explore how this approach to innovation can be included in existing departments and processes and develop what we call experimental governance,” he says.

Data for smart energy

To make sure that district-installed energy resources like these operate as efficiently as possible, My Smart Life also set out to develop an innovative energy controller concept.

Project partners connected a number of facilities at the energy campus of the Hamburg University of Applied Science to test different ideas for monitoring energy consumption and production, calculating and analysing trends and creating forecasts.

Residents visit an ice storage facility served by heat pumps powered by solar energy in Hamburg

They went on to develop a user interface that makes it easy to see, for example, how much energy is being generated, how much electricity is being purchased from the grid and daily, monthly and annual CO2 and cost savings.

These are just a few of the exploitable results to emerge from My Smart Life that have already been adopted across Hamburg to reduce the risks, costs and carbon emissions of decentralised energy systems.

Hamburg and its partner cities have also distilled their experiences into an urban transformation strategy bringing out what it takes to excel in urban development, which it will pass on to the follower cities, Bydgoszcz, Rijeka, and Valencia, and beyond.

The way the administration works has also been changed fundamentally.

Alongside the city’s new networked and non-sectoral approach to innovation is a new common practice: using the project’s citizen participation methods in informal, non-urban planning projects too.

Another direct result of the project is Hamburg’s newly-conferred ability to promote legal changes related to the regulation of renewable energies and hydrogen technology and to investment incentives for businesses and residents.

Two indirect results are also playing their part in paving the way for the energy transition. One is an innovative new law that will see more roofs used to generate solar power. The other is the introduction of renewable energy checks for new  buildings.

Through these projects you can do things on a small scale that have a big impact
— Lukas Risch

The impact My Smart Life has had on Hamburg’s energy transformation capabilities and ambitions has inspired the city to take part in more European research and innovation projects. It is currently involved in 15.

“My Smart Life was one of the starting points,” says Risch. “What we learned is that through these projects you can do things on a small scale that have a big impact and achieve so much more than just the project results.”

Tiphanie Mellor