Smart heat­ing, apps & co.: Does dig­i­tal­iza­tion in the ener­gy sec­tor ben­e­fit cli­mate protection?

Using weath­er fore­casts to con­trol heat­ing sys­tems, mon­i­tor the effi­cien­cy of heat­ing appli­ances or record elec­tric­i­ty con­sump­tion smart­ly: Dig­i­ti­za­tion in the ener­gy sec­tor promis­es oppor­tu­ni­ties to save green­house gas­es. But to what extent can it real­ly con­tribute to cli­mate pro­tec­tion? A new study has used five case stud­ies to assess how smart solu­tions in build­ings and house­holds affect ener­gy and cli­mate pro­tec­tion tar­gets and what their envi­ron­men­tal impacts are. The researchers from the Insti­tute for Eco­log­i­cal Econ­o­my Research (IÖW) and co2online show that such dig­i­tal appli­ca­tions can use­ful­ly sup­ple­ment impor­tant cli­mate pro­tec­tion mea­sures such as the ener­gy-effi­cient refur­bish­ment of build­ings or the expan­sion of renew­able ener­gies, but can­not replace them due to lim­it­ed sav­ings poten­tial. The project “Cli­mate Pro­tec­tion Poten­tials of Dig­i­tal­iza­tion” was car­ried out on behalf of the Fed­er­al Envi­ron­ment Agency.

The researchers have devel­oped a trans­fer­able method­ol­o­gy for the envi­ron­men­tal assess­ment of dig­i­tal­iza­tion in the ener­gy end-cus­tomer mar­ket and applied it in select­ed case stud­ies on heat and elec­tric­i­ty in res­i­den­tial build­ings and house­holds. Among them: the con­trol of heat­ing sys­tems via weath­er fore­casts as well as online effi­cien­cy mon­i­tor­ing of heat­ing sys­tems, dig­i­tal record­ing of elec­tric­i­ty con­sump­tion via smart meters with a feed­back sys­tem, or tools to help oper­ate heat pumps and elec­tric charg­ing sta­tions in such a way that they serve the pow­er grid.

The research team com­pared the direct envi­ron­men­tal effects of such smart tech­nolo­gies — such as their pro­duc­tion, use and dis­pos­al — with the indi­rect effects, such as an increased use of renew­able ener­gies or an increase in ener­gy effi­cien­cy, as well as user-relat­ed and elec­tric­i­ty mar­ket effects. The assess­ment was car­ried out using the estab­lished method of life cycle assess­ment and a sys­tem­at­ic clas­si­fi­ca­tion of the poten­tial­ly occur­ring envi­ron­men­tal impacts.

Cli­mate pro­tec­tion poten­tial by 2030: avail­able, but low

The results show that smart ener­gy solu­tions for house­holds can con­tribute to cli­mate pro­tec­tion. In this way, the envi­ron­ment can ben­e­fit from the opti­miza­tion and mon­i­tor­ing of heat­ing sys­tems, as the pos­i­tive effects from the heat­ing ener­gy saved are sig­nif­i­cant­ly greater than the envi­ron­men­tal impact of build­ing and oper­at­ing the dig­i­tal tools. Appli­ca­tions that require cus­tomers to take action them­selves are more dif­fi­cult to eval­u­ate. A smart meter, for exam­ple, ana­lyzes a house­hold’s elec­tric­i­ty con­sump­tion and pro­vides tips on how to save elec­tric­i­ty via an app. There is still lit­tle knowl­edge avail­able here on medi­um-term sav­ings effects. Nev­er­the­less, it appears that the poten­tial envi­ron­men­tal oppor­tu­ni­ties tend to be greater than the envi­ron­men­tal risks. How­ev­er, it is impor­tant not to over­es­ti­mate the poten­tial, the researchers emphasize.

“Extrap­o­lat­ed to the whole of Ger­many, the emis­sions sav­ings of the solu­tions stud­ied, com­bined with their cur­rent mar­ket growth, can only make a small con­tri­bu­tion to the 2030 cli­mate pro­tec­tion tar­gets,” sum­ma­rizes Hannes Bluhm, an expert in envi­ron­men­tal assess­ments at the Insti­tute for Eco­log­i­cal Econ­o­my Research. The tools stud­ied can only con­tribute between 0.07 and 0.21 per­cent of the 113 mil­lion tons of CO2 that the ener­gy indus­try needs to save by 2030.

Even if dig­i­tal solu­tions are not the cen­tral lever for cli­mate pro­tec­tion in build­ings, they could still be imple­ment­ed as pre­dom­i­nant­ly low-invest­ment mea­sures in the short or medi­um term. The smart con­trol of heat­ing sys­tems, for exam­ple, can on the one hand con­tribute to a rel­e­vant reduc­tion in build­ings that are still unin­su­lat­ed and on the oth­er hand achieve a few addi­tion­al per­cent­age points of sav­ings even in well-insu­lat­ed build­ings. “Dig­i­tal­iza­tion can be a use­ful com­ple­ment to the nec­es­sary ren­o­va­tion mea­sures and the switch to renew­able ener­gies in the build­ing sec­tor. In order to achieve cli­mate neu­tral­i­ty in the build­ing sec­tor, the use of appro­pri­ate appli­ca­tions is even a pre­req­ui­site,” says Lau­renz Her­mann of co2online.

Rec­om­men­da­tions for pol­i­cy and practice

Since most smart solu­tions have only been on the mar­ket for a few years, there is often a lack of inde­pen­dent, sci­en­tif­ic eval­u­a­tion of their impact and poten­tial. There­fore, the research team rec­om­mends a broad­er inves­ti­ga­tion in field stud­ies that demon­strate and val­i­date the eco­log­i­cal impact of appro­pri­ate applications.

In addi­tion, tech­nol­o­gy providers and mar­ket play­ers should devel­op com­mon stan­dards so that dig­i­tal appli­ca­tions do not require cost­ly retro­fits and can be man­aged inde­pen­dent­ly of indi­vid­ual providers. It is also essen­tial that new tech­nolo­gies are always accom­pa­nied by appro­pri­ate qual­i­fi­ca­tion of those respon­si­ble for sales and instal­la­tion. “For appli­ca­tions to become wide­spread, viable busi­ness mod­els are need­ed, which are often depen­dent on the design of the rel­e­vant legal frame­work, includ­ing the lev­el of exist­ing tax­es, levies and charges in the ener­gy sec­tor,” says Pro­fes­sor Matthias Knauff, who exam­ined the cas­es stud­ied from a legal per­spec­tive. Here, the new fed­er­al gov­ern­ment is called upon to review these for their cli­mate pol­i­cy impact and, if nec­es­sary, to estab­lish fund­ing instruments.

Down­load the pub­li­ca­tion of the Fed­er­al Envi­ron­ment Agency: Poten­tials of dig­i­tal­iza­tion for the reduc­tion of green­house gas emis­sions in the ener­gy sector