Tapping into smart technology to demonstrate local energy independence

An integrated energy system that serves 500 people could become a new model for energy efficiency and security at the village level, and contribute to the European plan to build a decentralized energy network. 

Through a project known as the Energy Self-Sufficient Municipality (ESO Kněžice), the municipality of Kněžice (Czech Republic) is systematically developing mechanisms to provide affordable and environmentally friendly electricity and heating. Currently, the village has a central heating plant and a biogas plant with a capacity of 330 kilowatts (kW). One aim is to demonstrate the potential to of biomass as a local source of sustainable, renewable energy. By using only renewable resources and processing waste, the system reduces carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by about 11 000 tonnes per year.  

 The biogas plant produces both heat and electricity (known as ‘co-generation’ or ‘combined heat and power’ [CHP]). The plant’s two hot-water boilers (capacity of 400 kW) currently feed a district heating system with 159 transfer stations, providing warmth for about 360 inhabitants (90% of the population). The mayor wants to boost this capacity to 800 kW to cover peak demand. In summer, the waste heat can be used for other purposes such as industrial processes. 

 Electricity produced at the biogas plant faces a more complex challenge. At present, it can be used to meet the demand of the municipality – e.g. for a public retirement home, schools and streetlighting – and can be fed into the local grid. However, there is no mechanism to deliver it directly to local homes or businesses (as is done with excess heat). Rather, it must be sold to the state-owned distribution company, ČEZ Distribuce, which then sells it the homes. This creates an unnecessary financial burden for villagers. The plant sells to ČEZ Distribuce for Czech kroner (CZK) 1 per kilowatt-hour (/kWh = EUR 0.04/kWh); in turn, ČEZ Distribuce sells to customers at CZK 5/kWh (EUR 0.19/kWh). Clearly, the municipality could sell to citizens directly for a much lower price while still making sufficient profit.   

The bigger question is ‘will they be allowed to?’ In the Czech Republic, and across much of the EU, energy policy currently prohibits direct sales from local generators to local consumers – and large distributors have a lot of ‘power’ to encourage governments to maintain the status quo. The mayor and his partners are using virtual and smart technologies to prove the technical and financial viability of village-level generation and distribution, with the aim of demonstrating how small municipalities can both achieve energy independence and reduce the energy bills of their citizens.  

Moving forward, Obec Kněžice would like to improve the scope of their project by partnering with producers of biodegradable waste and energy companies working with local distribution networks. In addition, the organisation would like to create an opportunity for residents to install solar photovoltaic (PV) panels to boost the volume of electricity feeding into the newly built local distribution system and to add capacity for commercial net-metering, which would further strengthen the business model for local energy systems. Innovative data collection will be central to an integrated solution that optimises electricity, heating and water supply systems as well as the use of waste materials and wastewater. Importantly, ESO Kněžice also promotes education, training and employment. 

The municipality has won numerous awards for its work towards energy independence, including the European Energy Award (2007), the 18th annual Czech Health and Safe Environment Award (2009, Environment category) and 3rd place in the Transformation of Waste to Resources in the Utilization of Secondary Raw Materials contest announced by the Ministry of Industry and Trade (2018). 

Obec Kněžice is one of 15 finalists in the 2019 Social Innovation to Tackle Energy Poverty Program, launched by the Schneider Electric Foundation and the Ashoka Foundations of Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Romania.  

Photo credits: Anna Solcova