Hoog Dalem: An entire neighborhood off the grid using solar energy storage

by Andrew Meyer
December 11, 2015
Sustainability

Welcome to renewable energy heaven: Hoog Dalem, Netherlands.

Hoog Dalem is the first entire neighborhood to be built and designed to generate, store, and use its own solar power for all of its electricity needs. By using solar panels in conjunction with energy storage systems in the form of home batteries, the residents of Hoog Dalem will enjoy safe, reliable, clean energy all the time, every day. Let’s take a closer look at what neighborhood-wide energy independence looks like, and see why Hoog Dalem could become a model for residential design in the future.

How Energy Storage Works

Households around the world are installing solar panels to power their home. The solar revolution makes serious sustainable sense, and it’s also becoming the most economical way to power your home. Solar panels generate electricity from sunlight. It’s awesome. Once installed, solar panels require minimal maintenance and usually last over 25 years. That’s a quarter century of clean, free electricity.

Here’s the catch: solar panels only generate electricity during the day when the sun is out. Any appliances, lights, or plugs that are using electricity during the day will use solar energy. But during the day, most people aren’t home using electricity, so most of the electricity from solar panels goes back onto the electrical grid. In some cases, your utility pays you for that extra energy, but that means solar panels are actually dependent on the utility grid, just like your home appliances. When the grid goes down, so do your solar panels. For grid-tied solar panels, grid failure means solar failure, so without more, solar panels can’t take you off grid. Even if they could keep working for you while the grid was down, you would still have a big problem: since solar panels only generate electricity during the day, you would be left in the dark all night. Not ideal. This is where energy storage comes in and saves the day. With a home battery and solar panels, you can generate all of the electricity you need with solar panels, and then store extra electricity in your solar battery for when you want electricity but your solar panels aren’t generating any electricity. A home solar battery is like a power reservoir. Water reservoirs continuously provide water, to overcome the intermittency of natural water flows. Home batteries ensure continuous power in an off-grid home, overcoming the intermittency of natural solar flows.

What’s Happening in Hoog Dalem

A group of companies, including ABB, IBM, and Stedin, are working together to build Hoog Dalem into a self-sufficient, clean-energy zone. It is part of a Universal Smart Energy Framework project aimed at demonstrating the financial feasibility of smart energy applications. The project also hopes to reduce the demand on the electrical grid during the times of the day when people are consuming electricity at the highest rates (this is also called peak demand, or peak load).

The Dutch district of Hoog Dalem is taking solar power and energy storage neighborhood-wide. Each of Hoog Dalem’s 50 residential units is built with an electric heat pump, an appliance that uses electricity to move hot and cold air extremely efficiently, and eliminates the need for forced gas in the residence. Homes are also fitted with solar panels to generate energy, and home batteries to store energy.

The end result is a community built to generate, store, and use energy sustainably, cleanly, and responsibly. Other communities have been joining the solar power revolution, but installing solar panels alone isn’t as helpful as you might think.

Why Solar Isn’t Enough

Don’t get it wrong, solar panels are great. Generating electricity from the sun? Which is free? Sounds perfect, right? But when everyone installs solar panels and starts generating electricity during the day when the sun is at it’s best can actually put a lot of pressure on an already overloaded electrical grid. Without home batteries or other forms of energy storage, this is happening all the time, since most households are not using the power generated by their solar panels during the afternoon. Most people need electricity the most in the evening. At that point, they have to get it back from the grid.

Generating energy with solar panels is a great way to distribute energy production, but it only works if you keep it. Otherwise, the grid still has the do the work of regulating supply and demand, and you’re still dependent on grid power at night. The only way to use the energy generated by your solar panels earlier in the day is to store it in a home battery.

If an entire neighborhood installs rooftop solar, like in the case of Hoog Dalem, home batteries become even more important. Imagine a bottleneck of energy feeding back into the grid when the sun is high in the sky, all coming from the same district. Grid regulation has to go into overdrive. The minds behind the Hoog Dalem project saw this coming, and took proactive steps to save the grid some stress, and save their residents some money: they installed home batteries first.

Grid Compensation

But wait, doesn’t the grid pay solar customers for the power they feed back into the grid? Well, yes. For now. Many states (like California) are already cutting back on the compensation solar users get for the surplus energy they give back to the grid, and other areas are talking about taxing the whole transaction, taking a substantial slice out of payment solar customers receive. As time goes on, selling to the grid is getting less and less profitable (and as we mentioned before, it doesn’t put the grid in a good situation.)

With less incentive to sell unused energy to the grid, home batteries are becoming even more appealing. If you are not paid a retail rate for the extra energy, and you’re going to need that energy back in the evening anyway, why give it away? With a home battery, you don’t have to. You get to keep the energy you generate, and use it when you need it.

A Simple Goal: Efficient Energy Generation, Efficient Energy Use

The motivation behind the Hoog Dalem project is simple: generate clean, renewable energy efficiently, store it in home batteries safely, and equip households with the information they need to use energy efficiently as well. Many communities seem to be hooking onto only one part of this comprehensive plan for a cleaner energy future. Many households and businesses are finding solar panels a great way to generate clean energy, but have not yet installed home batteries or other energy storage technologies, and so they’re feeding a lot of their electricity back into the grid. Others have started to pay more attention to where their electricity is being used through the use of smart meters and other phone and tablet apps, but have not taken steps to install ways to generate their own clean energy, so they are still relying on the grid to power their homes, devices, and lifestyles. The residents of Hoog Dalem will have all three of these areas covered, enabling them to have complete control over the generation and distribution of their own power. We can’t wait to see how this changes the way the community lives.

Part of the project includes fitting residents with smart meters and other technology that will show them where their energy is going, and how much they are using for different tasks and appliances. The community is also looking for ways that household appliances, like washers and dryers, can be controlled remotely, or switch on and off automatically when their solar panels are producing power, so they can take advantage of the available electricity, and use it on the spot. This will make more of each household’s own, generated energy available later in the day. The ability to pay attention to electricity generation and consumption will hopefully lead to more responsible power use by each household.

Preparing for a Sustainable Future

The Hoog Dalem project is going to be great for its residents, giving them reliable, clean, cheap power and great tools to use it efficiently. But on top of the many benefits for those who live there, the project will provide inspiration, and a working model of how other communities can build a more sustainable future. The electrical grid, as it stands, is already vulnerable, and the price of fossil fuels continues to rise (and most likely will, until we run out of them entirely). There’s never been a better time to look into innovative energy solutions, and great energy storage options, like home batteries. Many homes are catching on to the benefits of installing solar panels. The next step is for everyone to see that you can’t experience the full value and advantages of solar photovoltaics without home batteries.

Renewable energy sources, when used in conjunction with energy storage like home batteries, will power us into the future, even if we have to take it one neighborhood at a time.