In 2015, a number of countries from around the world ratified the Paris Agreement, which requires all parties to put forth their best efforts through nationally determined contributions (NDC’s) to lower their CO2 emissions and strengthen the global response to climate change .
Energy production is responsible for more than seventy percent of all man-made greenhouse gas emissions, and of that, thirty percent comes from electricity and heat production . This has prompted many people to look for alternative ways to power their homes and cars and has even given birth to some off-the-grid communities of people living in alternative, “earthship-style” homes that power themselves.
While living off-the-grid may seem a bit extreme for the average person, it raises an important question: can we create communities that are completely self-sufficient? A team of engineers in the Netherlands thinks we can.
A new report by Netherlands-based energy systems company Metabolic, and funded by the Dutch government has found that microgrid technologies could decentralize the sharing of energy at the local level between multiple households, resulting in local “techno-economies” that are 90 percent self-sufficient .
Florijn de Graaf, an energy systems engineer, and author of the report believes that this new approach in energy production could eventually make it possible to achieve 100 percent self-sufficiency in power, heat, and water, and 50 percent self-sufficiency in food production .
The report states that by the year 2050, almost half of all households in the European Union will be producing renewable energy, and one-third of these homes will be participating in a local energy economy .
A microgrid is a combination of several technologies, including rooftop solar panels, electric vehicles, heat pumps, and batteries for storage. These technologies are decentralized and are becoming increasingly popular.
“As time progresses, costs go down and climate awareness goes up, more and more people will start owning one or more of these technologies,” said de Graaf .
Dumb Versus Smart Technology
In de Graaf’s opinion, the way we are currently using these technologies is “dumb”. For example, if you were to purchase solar panels for your home right now, you would simply attach them to the current power grid each for its own separate purpose. This, however, places a significantly higher demand on the local energy grid and requires expensive infrastructure upgrades in order to sustain the system .
To solve this problem, Metabolic has introduced “SIDE Systems”. SIDE stands for “Smart Integrated Decentralized Energy”, and is a way to integrate the different energy-production technologies in a way that balances supply and demand and prevents high costs .
De Graaf explains that this should be done through an intelligent energy management system. For example, the system would charge your car while the sun is out, and any excess energy that is generated would be exported to your neighbor’s heat pump.
“Ultimately, this smart, decentralised integration democratises energy production and consumption, and allows consumers and cooperatives to take control of their own energy supply, which will help facilitate the renewable energy transition from the bottom-up,” he says .
The company based the findings of their report on data from four cases in Amsterdam. One of these cases is the Ardhuizen, which is a community of 23 “Earthship” houses that is almost one hundred percent self-sufficient.
The Ardehuizen uses heat pumps, electric boilers, solar thermal and photovoltaic panels, wood stoves, and grid connections to provide significantly cheaper power to the community, compared to a conventional grid power system.
The Ardehuizen, however, does not use a SIDE system. The Metabolic report simulated what would happen if the Ardehuizan were to implement one of these systems, estimating that with one in place, they could achieve an 89 percent self-sufficient energy system.
The community would have a shared battery storage system, air-to-water heat pumps, local energy trading between houses to exchange surplus, electric vehicles, Combined Heat and Power (CHP) units which generate both heat and electricity using biomass, and a local district heating network to distribute heat to multiple houses. The entire system would be equipped with a smart meter to monitor the entire operation .
SIDE systems have the potential to increase the amount of intermittent renewable energy the grid system is able to handle to as much as 50 to 75 percent. By comparison, the current grid system in the Netherlands can only handle an input of about 25 to thirty percent.
De Graaf is confident that the system could be applied to power grids all over the world.
“With the unstoppable emergence of electric vehicles, solar panels, heat pumps and batteries, we will start seeing more and more of these microgrids emerge,” he said. “The decentralisation of our energy system is therefore an unstoppable force that will have a big impact on our renewable energy future.” 
The Metabolic team isn’t planning on stopping there. They believe these microgrids and SIDE systems are only the beginning of what’s possible. The company’s end-goal is to create what they’re calling “smarthoods”.
A smarthood is an urban system that integrates decentralized food, water and energy flows in order to create a neighborhood that is almost one hundred percent self-sufficient. The whole process is based on the principle of “circularity”, which means recycling water, materials, and waste as much as possible within the system.
“Living in a Smarthood will instantly reduce one’s ecological footprint by near 40 percent. We envision it as the circular, resilient neighborhood of the future, that solves many of the 21st century’s greatest challenges,” explained de Graaf .
The potential is there, and the next step for de Graaf and his team is to execute it in neighborhoods in the Netherlands. From there, the hope is that neighborhoods around the world will model themselves after these self-sufficient communities, which could have a far-reaching positive impact on the entire planet .
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