Being cosy with the future of energy

Meet Peter, a resident of Aspern Smart City in Vienna. He and his apartment are part of Europe’s most innovative research project into the future of urban energy. 

Aspern Smart City in Vienna is a living laboratory for research into the future of urban energy. In Europe’s most innovative energy-efficiency project, the Aspern Smart City Research company is investigating how smart energy systems and intelligent buildings operate together in a real urban subcenter. The inhabitants of the smart city play an important role in the project – because in addition to being efficient, the city of the future has to be worth living in. We visited one of the residents.

When Peter leaves his apartment, he presses the eco-switch by the front door. The switch deactivates the WLAN and isolates the sockets for the electric kettle, TV, and coffee-maker from the power supply. Devices with a time switch or digital clock have their own sockets with a constant power supply.


Using the energy app on his mobile phone, Peter can turn on the under-floor heating while he’s still on the subway. He can also operate the lighting and ventilation either manually or using an app. The fact he works at home on Mondays and goes to the fitness studio after work on Thursdays is pre-set for his 50 m² single apartment.


The energy app for tablets and smartphones shows the temperature and air quality in the living areas at all times and the current power consumption of hot water, heating, and electricity. Monthly and annual statistics are available if he needs a more detailed overview. Peter can view the consumption for each individual device and consider whether it would be worthwhile buying a more energy-saving refrigerator or a more efficient washing machine. The app offers tips on energy saving but doesn’t take over. He reviews and optimizes his own power consumption with minimal effort.

One of 111 Smart Users in Aspern Smart City

Peter isn’t a made-up smart city inhabitant: He really exists. For four years, he’s lived in a residential building with self-contained heating in Aspern Smart City in Vienna. As one of 111 Smart Users, he’s participating in a live-data demonstration project run by Siemens, local energy utility Wien Energie, and grid operator Wiener Netze. That wasn’t why he moved here, though. He simply likes living on the outskirts of the city, close to the countryside, in a new building: “I like saving electricity and am interested in energy-related subjects. That’s why I volunteered to be part of the field trial.”


The research activity isn’t a conspicuous part of Peter’s daily routine: “Only once, when I deactivated the main switch and went on vacation, someone phoned me because the flow of data in my unit had stopped.” He enjoys the fact that being a Smart User means he learns about new opportunities at an early stage and can also be a pioneer in trying out something new, like the under-floor air-conditioning starting in 2020.

Four pillars of the city of the future

The Smart User is just one of four pillars of the city of the future. The three others are the intelligent systems that surround Peter, starting with the smart building he lives in. Then there’s the smart grid that provides his power and lastly, the smart information and communications technology (ICT) that enables all the systems like heat pumps, solar power plants, and building optimization systems to communicate with each other – and with Peter.


Even if we know Peter by name as a Smart User, he remains an anonymous “contributor” to the smart city: Using smart meters and smart apps, he supplies data on room comfort and energy consumption. He already lives in a smart building that’s capable of generating and storing heat and electricity. Optimized and automated instrumentation and control mechanisms allow smart buildings to cushion and establish a balance between supply of and demand for heat and electricity. That means individual data, consumption, and behavior patterns aren’t relevant to the research; and while “where you are” is relevant to the building control technology, “who you are” is not. The capacity for storage and use of energy at a later time offers flexibility that can be utilized on energy markets or to stabilize the smart grid.

The smart grid is self-optimizing and remains stable in the face of future challenges: the increasing electrification of mobility, heat generation, and building control, fluctuating supplies from renewable energy sources like sun and wind, variable consumption depending on weather, lifestyle, and electromobility, and increasing decentralization. Electricity is no longer generated just in power stations; it’s also produced by solar panels and wind turbines on the roofs of residential buildings. In the future, electricity will be stored at the local level in schools, residential buildings, and even shopping centers.


Coordinating all the data flows, systems, standards, and processes involved requires smart information and communications technology: Smart ICT pervades and surrounds the other three key areas. Depending on the situation-based task, it functions as a universal interpreter, control center and database conductor.

Test bed in Vienna

The expansion of infrastructure in growing cities and the upgrading of the power network and buildings must be carefully evaluated. The question of how far you can take energy efficiency and what solutions are practical has been the subject of development and testing since 2013 in Aspern, on the outskirts of Vienna. By 2028, the plan is to develop the entire 240 hectares of a former airfield and provide space to live and work for 20,000 people. To support the development of this new urban subcenter, the research company Aspern Smart City Research (ASCR) was established in 2013.


The first phase of successful collaboration was completed at the end of 2018, and the decision was made to extend the budget for the collective project efforts from 2019 to 2023. In addition to Siemens as a technology partner, other participants in the project include the Vienna Business Agency, the grid operator Wiener Netze, the power utility Wien Energie, and the company responsible for developing the subcenter, Wien3420 Aspern Development AG.

Energy optimization on a large scale

Phase 1 involved networking and performing research on a 213-unit residential building with self-contained heating, including the one Peter lives in; an educational campus, also with self-contained heating, including a kindergarten and elementary school; and a residence for 300 students. Peter’s data flow joins data from other Smart Users and countless sensors in the buildings, the technical systems, the surrounding environment, and the local power network to form a sea of data that’s then analyzed by Aspern Smart City Research. As a Smart User, Peter also prioritizes living in comfort.


Depending on his motivation and emerging opportunities, there are more power and cost saving options available to him. The goal of ASCR is to optimize the generation, distribution, storage, and consumption of power for an entire urban subcenter. Establishing the test bed has seen the creation of 1.5 million live data points in the grid and buildings, and these have been monitored every day for the past few years and used to improve energy efficiency in live operation. 

Don’t standardize, translate

The smart building project considered factors like heating, air-conditioning, ventilation, lighting, access and security systems, heat pumps, solar heating, photovoltaic systems, batteries, and electromobility. Flows of water, heat, and electricity in the buildings were collectively monitored. The data center is a little like the UN General Assembly – but with no interpreters.


The objective for Siemens was to develop prototype “translators” to avoid having to standardize the language of the buildings, the language of the network, the consumption patterns of the occupants, and the technical standards. Universally applicable solutions had to be devised to enable international market registration, and this step proved successful.


Smart system reduces buildings’ carbon footprint

By the beginning of 2019, the ASCR had answers to 60 research questions, and Siemens alone had submitted 11 patent applications. Working together, they developed solutions for smart buildings and the future expansion of the network infrastructure. Now there are applications in place to monitor the current load on the network, use the network more effectively, and automatically recognize how various sensors are connected within the network, whether it’s via Powerline, fiber-optic cable, or wireless technology. Much has also been learned about the best measurement intervals and the best sensor set-up.


A building energy management system (BEMS) optimizes energy consumption in the buildings, leading to a demonstrable saving of CO2 emissions and power costs. The buildings were also made capable of actively participating in the electricity market. Simulation models for future energy-optimized buildings were developed based on five years of live operation and monitoring of building, network, weather, and consumption data. Smart software draws on the sea of data to determine which paths the electricity is taking in the low-voltage network. This information can be used to manage future power networks more efficiently and ensure that they’re compatible with renewables, home battery storage systems, and electromobility.

The next research goal: Reducing operating costs even more

Phase 2 of the collaboration with ASCR will extend the evaluation process to include an office building with a digital twin: a machine-readable, digital building data store for space, time, and technical information for all stages from planning to operation.


Research through 2023 will focus on continuing to minimize operating costs for buildings and network infrastructure. For example, through predictive maintenance. Building data from the digital twin will become a hub that links data, users, and specific applications. Solutions developed on this basis should be self-configuring as much as possible and easy to operate. The question of air-conditioning in buildings, which is of growing importance, will also be considered. The ASCR team hopes to thoroughly integrate the growing world of electromobility and the associated charging infrastructure into the distribution network and link it with new, data-based energy market models. The potential offered by charging and discharging batteries could be used for electricity trading and either save or earn money in the process.


Smart User Peter will continue to live in comfort while happily avoiding the need to switch to stand-by mode. He would be very happy to participate in an e-car sharing pilot in the future. The building has an EV charging station, and the waste heat from the garage is put to good use helping balance out the heating requirements of his residential building. Most recently, the tenants voted on whether some residents would join forces to generate more electricity using a rooftop system. Peter might also enjoy getting the best price for the excess electricity produced by the jointly operated PV system that’s fed into the grid.

Photos: ASCR, Wien 3420 AG, Siemens AG


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