Who will send you the electricity bill in the future? Probably your mayor.
A Portuguese project envisions a time in which cities will take on an active role in the creation and storage of their own electric power.
For a glimpse into this futuristic scenario, just look to Braga and its ‘Living Lab for Decarbonisation’, in northern Portugal. Here, new techniques for the production and storage of clean energy will be devised and studied in a real-life scenario, inside a creative arts edifice buzzing with human activity.
The Living Lab lies at the heart of ‘Baterias 2030’, a Portuguese scheme that imagines cities overseeing their own energy supply in the years to come.
Powering up energy independence
“The idea is to create an energy community that can generate electricity locally and operate autonomously with its own power grid,” says Pedro Salomé, an engineer and main researcher within the ‘Baterias 2030’ team.
At the same time, the creation of energy for urban use will reduce cities’ CO2 consumption and facilitate the switch from fossil fuels to sustainability.
Salomé is a group leader at the International Iberian Nanotechnology Laboratory (INL), one of the nine research institutes and 14 companies teaming up to bring Baterias 2030 to life.
Expecting a demographic explosion
For now, the Braga City Council is participating as an ‘observing partner’, but if experts’ predictions prove correct, the Portuguese city could soon find itself in the driver’s seat.
Cities cannot continue to only use up electricity; they will have to produce their own power.
“Cities cannot continue to only use up electricity; they will have to produce their own power. A way to do this is through renewable sources which will also boost urban decarbonisation,” Salomé explains.
Expanding cities’ energy independence will be particularly relevant as experts foresee an urban demographic boom in the future: the UN predicts that by 2050 cities will host 68% of the world’s population, up from today’s 55%.
“Cities will increasingly become one of the main energy users, so it makes sense that they’ll generate energy on-site,” Salomé explains.
Mayor of Braga Ricardo Rio agrees and considers Baterias 2030 a promising innovative model: “It places scientists and businesses in the region at the forefront of power storage and management and predicts that cities will take the lead in a sustainable energy revolution,” Rio says.
An urban green power lab
The Living Lab is located inside a former police station that has since been transformed and changed its name into ‘Gnrtion’.
Owned by the municipality, the building today is a creative hub that simultaneously serves as an art, exhibition and music centre while playing host to start-ups and a university radio, among other things.
The structure is alive with people who come here to work or on a visit throughout the week, so it provides the ideal real-life conditions for testing the project’s innovations, Salomé says.
Launched in late July of this year, Baterias 2030 will reach its first milestone in 2023 when the construction of the ‘Living Lab for Decarbonisation’ will be completed and ready to be put to work.
The experimental infrastructure will be based on an integrated approach: different providers of sustainable energy – batteries, solar panels, energy-generating pavements and urban windmills – will harvest power for the building’s microgrid.
Four green sources, one microgrid
Batteries will be central to this structure; it’s not by chance that the project takes its name from them (Baterias means batteries in Portuguese). They will generate electricity for the building as well as power for an electric vehicle charging station just around the corner from the Living Lab.
Up on the rooftop and on the building facade, photovoltaic panels will harvest solar energy to further feed the microgrid.
Along with a traditional solar power network, researchers will also develop and install a new type of panel made of perovskite, a high-performing material that can be produced locally.
Windmills will power streetlamps just along the building; in addition, the Living Lab’s floor will provide additional power originating from the sun and from the movement of passing buses and street traffic.
The idea is for the pavement to capture solar and kinetic energy and to convey both into the local power grid. The development of floors of this kind is still at an early stage but testing within the Baterias 2030 project may help the technology to leap forward, Salomé says.
From production to storage
Combined together, batteries, solar panels, windmills and floors will generate a surplus of electricity that could be put to different uses. Aside from powering the Gnration complex, the excess energy could be sold to nearby buildings in need of it.
Mainly, however, the extra power will be stored in batteries and used to supply the buildings’ energy needs in the months to come.
That presents experts with the main challenge, says Baterias 2030’s leading scientist.
“One of the objectives of the project is to find the most cost-effective solution for energy storage,” Salomé explains. For that, the Baterias 2030 system will hinge on the development of a new generation of batteries.
“We have several lines of research in this field. One of them is to offer a second life to used batteries. Once they can no longer power an electric car or a bus, they can still be installed elsewhere.”
“At the same time, we’ll be looking at devising the next generation of lithium-ion batteries. We also want to build a new class of Redox flow batteries which are very good for stationary applications,” Salomé explains.
Over time, companies participating in the Baterias 2030 scheme hope to turn it into a profitable investment by marketing the most successful energy solutions and those that have produced better results.
For cities, the Portuguese experiment promises to outline the urban energy revolution of the future, but for that to happen experts and municipalities will need to stand side by side, says Salomé.
“Cooperating with the municipality is paramount to ensure that our solutions can also work for them and that our inventions can reasonably be installed in an urban environment,” remarks the Portuguese engineer. “Setting up our microgrid, for example, will also likely mean changing or adapting local legislation and for that we need to talk to the municipality and get their officials involved.”
Salomé is convinced that other municipalities will have as much to benefit from Baterias 2030.
“The local microgrid will make cities more resilient because they will be generating their own electricity. If there is a power plant failure elsewhere – due to a natural disaster, for example – municipalities will still be able to produce power for local use without relying on electricity sources provided by other entities,” Salomé explains.