Researching the smart city: Digital solutions for climate protection

Aspern Smart City, Vienna

How digitalization technologies are helping a smart neighborhood in Vienna, Austria, to achieve climate targets and implement the energy transition.

Three years ago, Aspern Smart City Research (ASCR) – a research project studying the future of energy in urban areas, the only one of its kind in Europe – entered its next phase, which will continue until 2023.


The project began in 2013 when it was established in the Vienna urban development area of Aspern Seestadt. Its main goal is to develop market-oriented, scalable, and economical solutions for the energy future in cities and to make the energy system more efficient and more climate-friendly.


“The challenges for the economy and society that are associated with the climate goals are significant. The key is clearly in the development of our cities and the use of state-of-the-art technologies. To cover our constantly rising energy needs, we have to utilize all possible technologies that reduce carbon dioxide,” says Wolfgang Hesoun, CEO of Siemens Austria. His company is an ASCR research partner along with Wien Energie, Wiener Netzen, Wien 3420, and the Vienna Business Agency.


For the duration of this research project, an interdisciplinary team of about 100 researchers has been searching for answers to complex energy policy questions by looking at defined use cases and using real data and operational experience from field tests conducted in a smart neighborhood.

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Operational and practical workability as the top priority

Application- and user-friendliness plays an important role in the research and development framework, as does the practical application of the results, which are constantly being optimized in an extensive test environment. “For Siemens, participation in the research collaboration is tied directly to concrete, usable output,” Hesoun stresses. It’s intended to benefit urban areas and interested stakeholders far beyond Austria.


“The innovations that were pilot-tested by the research group are already being used and the knowledge acquired is already being applied in newly developed or enhanced Siemens products and solutions,” the CEO explains.


Whereas the emphasis of the research project’s first phase (2013 to 2018) was to create the necessary research infrastructure, the focus of the current second phase (2019 to 2023) is to apply the solution concepts in the ongoing system operations of the market participants (grid and building operators and energy providers).


The analysis of process and usage data is an important innovation driver: Reducing system complexity for users and automating operating processes using the data collected and the operational experience acquired play an important role.

The goal is to find out which of the optimizations implemented in the target energy system will have maximum benefits for the market participants, how they can be practically implemented on the technical level, and how the solutions will need to be designed in order to be easy for users and residents to use.


ASCR uses an integrative approach to demonstrate how buildings, grids, operators, and users can be connected more closely and how they can cooperate and benefit from one another through digitalization for the purposes of climate protection.


During the current program phase, the research environment has been greatly expanded. In Phase 1, it consisted of a residential building, an educational campus, and a student dormitory.


Now the research will also encompass the technology center in Aspern Seestadt and the List Group’s Seehub garage. And for the first time, buildings and infrastructures outside Seestadt will also serve as objects of research, including the Käthe-Dorsch-Gasse residential complex in Vienna’s 14th district, the Floridsdorf clinic (utilization of waste heat from a data center), UNO City (large-scale heat pump), and lighting concepts in three primary schools.

From a passive to an active and intelligent distribution network

Research activities in the grid system will facilitate the transition from a passive distribution network to an active and intelligent distribution network. The goal is to study and provide solution concepts that upgrade the current distribution grid infrastructure for the energy transition while ensuring the expected level of supply quality.


The integration of renewable energy sources results in challenges for the power distribution grid. Today energy is fed into the grid at connection points that weren’t technically designed for this purpose when the grid was originally planned. Another factor is new consumers like electric vehicles and advanced storage options.


The existing low- and medium-voltage grids are also currently being operated with no measurement and control systems. The only way to accommodate the grid transformation that’s already taking place – including its constantly rising peak loads – is by optimally combining a cost-efficient grid expansion with timely bidirectional communication.

Buildings as active market participants

The second largest research area focuses on the question of how buildings become active participants in the energy market. “Buildings should also be active in the energy system and make a substantial contribution. Because of their volatility, renewable energy solutions require a great deal of flexibility in terms of energy consumption, which is where buildings come into play. The conversion of electric current to heat or air-conditioning can be used to make the energy system more flexible. That’s why our approach is to look at buildings in a broader environment – in an infrastructure – rather than seeing them as isolated,” explains Gerd Pollhammer, Head of Smart Infrastructure at Siemens Austria.


Based on their own production of renewable energy and the existing storage capacities, buildings can exploit the advantages of variable energy prices and automatically offer their flexibility on the market. This reduces their consumption of external energy and optimizes energy costs.

Buildings should also be active in the energy system and make a substantial contribution.
Gerd Pollhammer, Head of Smart Infrastructure at Siemens Austria

The solution developed by ASCR is a building energy management system (BEMS) designed to enable seamless energy management between buildings and power grids. It allows smart buildings to communicate in different “languages” – not just with in-house systems like heat pumps, energy storage systems, PV systems, and charging infrastructures but also with other buildings and even with grids and electricity markets.


A BEMS is able to compensate for the “predictable unpredictability” of a building’s energy consumption and ensure energy-neutral operation. It achieves this by incorporating a wide variety of forecasting models like weather forecasts (crucial for the operation of PV systems) into the system as a highly effective way to stabilize the grid and reduce the carbon footprint of buildings.

Digital twins of buildings: The foundation of a smart building

Another factor is the optimization of costs and investments throughout a building’s lifecycle. Ideally, a digital twin has already been created as a digitalized model during the tender collection process for building construction on the basis of building information modeling (BIM). It’s turned into actual building documentation during construction and updated as needed when the building is modified or expanded.


By taking advantage of the benefits of virtual reality and data analytics, service and maintenance processes (predictive maintenance) can also be substantially optimized. A digital twin of the building allows problems to be detected early on. The resulting transparency makes it possible to not only improve processes and reduce errors but also to reduce costs and save energy.


Digital twins of buildings in conjunction with digital models of power grids and entire districts also help property developers and investors choose the right energy concepts for their projects.

Climate protection through digitalization

Digital technologies play an important role in ASCR research. They’re used to upgrade existing systems in Aspern Seestadt in order to generate new functionalities and ultimately to support climate protection in accordance with the overall concept of the research project.


This includes state-of-the-art monitoring and analysis tools, intelligent sensor technology, and digital management systems that equip the power grid and buildings to fulfill their role in a complex and dynamically changing system.


“Thanks to the interaction between heat pumps, building energy storage systems, batteries, and energy optimization and efficiency tools in the buildings, we were able to acquire a lot of new experience. We combined technologies in the area of building management with network management and decentralized energy management in such a way that they all speak the same language and can deliver data to a Web database via the IoT,” explains Pollhammer.

In order for grids to communicate with buildings – and for multiple buildings to communicate with each other – they’ll be connected via interfaces that allow the system components to exchange data, flexibility potential, requirements, and other information. This will result in considerable synergy effects. Examples include forecasting energy and load flows and providing an appropriate data analytics environment for the purpose of improving processes and gaining new insights.


By making efficient use of the existing building and grid infrastructure, entire urban districts can contribute to achieving our climate goals and make the energy transition a reality.

Application-oriented research

The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) is an important component that’s driving research into grid systems. The overall complexity of the systems increases dynamically in low-voltage grids due to eMobility, battery storage, and energy collectives. What’s needed is the simplest possible upgrade of existing systems to add new functionalities.


Using Aspern Seestadt as a test environment for IIOT-based, advanced automation systems has led to the development of cross-domain IoT architectures for distributed energy systems. The SICAM A8000 product family from Siemens is the result of application-oriented research involving station automation solutions for grid operators and suppliers whose field devices automatically report a central entity and can start operation immediately.


With the help of machine learning, identified grid and building data (for example, grid capacity and room temperature), and external data (like weather data) can be used to analyze and optimize interactions between the grid, buildings, and the energy consumption of residents. The models are constantly being fine-tuned via adaptive, self-learning algorithms. The building- and grid-specific control mechanisms continue to develop autonomously for optimal results.

To develop a sustainable economy and society, we’ll need new approaches and ever closer cooperation.
Wolfgang Hesoun, CEO of Siemens Austria

With the help of machine learning, correlations for different grid cells can be learned and a targeted estimate of grid capacity derived. Artificial intelligence can, among other things, support system technicians in analyzing the causes of errors.

Halfway through the second ASCR phase, the following results have been identified:


  • Substantial carbon emission reductions can be achieved through optimally coordinated generation and storage components using renewable energy sources.
  • Under the right conditions (PV system, use of groundwater), urban buildings can be operated in a thermally autonomous manner and using a high share of self-generated energy.
  • Grid and building operators and energy providers now have access to innovative analysis methods that were developed by the ASCR research for new operational management processes and business models.
  • Energy providers and grid operators also have access to systems that allow previously unused flexibility in buildings to be tapped and marketed through the concept of the virtual power plant/decentralized energy management system (DEMS) that was realized.

Economical use of smart grids

The system applications developed by ASCR for grid planning and operation make possible the economical use of smart grids. The test buildings are “smart-grid ready,” meaning that if these concepts are implemented consistently in urban development, it will be possible to avoid high peak loads – and therefore expensive grid expansions down the line.


Peak loads can also be covered by integrating power storage systems into the grid infrastructure. It seems, however, that these storage solutions are economically efficient only if their use is shared.


These findings will be applied to the design of grid-friendly energy collectives. In energy collectives, transformation and transmission losses that occur when power is fed into higher grid levels can be eliminated.


Among other things, ASCR is investigating how the technical system of an energy collective – including shared infrastructure like storage and generation systems – can communicate with systems used by other market participants (including distribution grid operators, energy providers, and service providers).


“Although we’ve already achieved considerable carbon dioxide reductions thanks to shared research efforts and optimally matched system components, we haven’t yet exhausted the possibilities of our analyses and of finding innovative solution ideas,“ says Hesoun.


“What our collaboration has also shown us is that in order to develop a climate-neutral, sustainable economy and society, we’ll need new approaches and ever closer cooperation between urban planning, the energy sector, grid operation, the housing sector, property developers, and industry. We’ve found this here in parts of Aspern Seestadt – thanks in no small part to support from the residents,” says Siemens Austria CEO Hesoun.

June 9, 2022

Picture credits: Siemens AG