Collective and sustainable energy solutions: from innovation to standard, be it in its infancy

One energy installation per house: it went without saying for a long time, and for many of us it still goes. Every household provides, or at least maintains its own installation and pays for its energy use through a self-selected provider. The ideal way to go in a world in which carbon emissions and energy crises are unknown, but completely out of the question in the present world with its climate challenges. We have to establish a more sustainable, even neutral energy model. That switch is in full swing. Whereas collective and sustainable energy solutions are evolving from 'innovative' to 'the standard', it becomes clear the will is there and knowledge is developing rapidly. Only the practical application is still in its infancy. Not only individuals struggle with switching to new energy solutions, project developers have to reinvent themselves partially as well.

As from 2025, the use of fossil fuels will be generally prohibited for newly built constructions in Flanders. For large housing projects, it has been since 2021. This means project developers have been connecting their construction projects mandatorily to alternative energy sources for two years now. A logical evolution without a doubt, but also an additional challenge that should not be underestimated. Not only do project developers have to expand their expertise in terms of energy, also providing energy and monthly invoicing of costs to individual buyers are not their field for the moment.

This is where the 'Energy Service Companies' come into the picture.

ESCos or Energy Service Companies increase their market share. These companies provide complete energy services to other organisations or groups of individuals. They install, maintain, control and fund complete energy projects for buildings. This leads to lower energy consumption, and therefore lower costs for the owner. With a part of those savings, the owner repays the funding of the energy installation. Moreover, the ESCo keeps the installation under its control during fifteen years or longer and invoices a monthly fee to the end users. 

An ESCo's essence is to unburden. Project developers call in the technical and legal expertise of the company to provide their building projects with sustainable energy. Owners do not have to worry about monthly invoicing of the energy consumption to their buyers. These buyers can then use green and low-priced energy, without high installation costs and having to search for an individual energy provider. So, win-win-win.

Evolution in full development

Although project developers logically call in ESCos more and more often, the whole story is not a well-oiled machine yet. Finding the right ESCo for a construction project, and using the correct techniques and renewable energy sources still requires a lot of searching and puzzling. Even though project developers have been heating and cooling their housing projects in a sustainable way for years now, there are few finished construction projects with an ESCo as intermediary that can serve as an example. Sealing good deals and contracting the right ESCo is still a project developer's story of trial & error for the moment.

The buyer should still be the centre of focus

Moreover, keeping the houses affordable is not an easy task. Collective and renewable energy sources often translate to higher purchase prices. Project developers are facing the challenge to develop the most sustainable products that at the same time are competitive with acceptable prices.

The new normal

In short, offering shared and sustainable energy sources is still a challenge. But at the same time it already is the new normal. Jan De Nul's project developer, PSR, has already applied different green energy techniques in its projects. For example, it opted for a BTES field for the Meuropsite in Rijmenam, riothermia for the Kaaidistrict in Aalst, a heat network linked to an incinerator for the Rives Ardentes eco-district in Liège and an all-in-one semi-collective installation with heat pumps and solar panels for De Lediaan in Diegem. Not rocket science, but existing techniques that are under further investigation by PSR and being implemented tailored to the project's specifics. For all these housing projects, it teams up with an ESCo that will take further care of the development and management of the energy installation. Given the extended in-house knowledge about energy applications within Jan De Nul Group, PSR closely collaborates with its ESCos and might be seeing itself in those shoes in the future.

If we can draw one conclusion out of the past years' evolution, it is that everyone is doing everything possible to make the switch to green and affordable energy for houses. It is a bit too early to be speaking of a smooth-running process, but by sharing sufficient knowledge and building on the already extended range of techniques, we will surely succeed.