Organizational learning and technological complexity: Insights for the implementation of renewable decentralized energy systems

WP4: Market Diffusion and Implementation of Technologies

Targeting energy use in buildings is an important pillar of the Swiss Energy Strategy 2050. Recent initiatives, such as the 2000-W Gesellschaft or the Energiestadt, focus on the potential for neighbourhoods, districts and cities to become more sustainable through a combination of improving energy efficiency and installing renewable technologies. These types of renewable decentralized energy systems (RDES) incorporate local renewables (e.g., solar and wind), connect producers and consumers, and integrating local storage.

Implementing RDES, however, is challenging because many different technologies, such as solar PV or geothermal storage need to be implemented simultaneously, and many different companies, such as investors, building planners, and operators need to collaborate from the beginning. Decisions about which parts of a neighbourhood to build first, for instance, have implications for how well decentralised systems can operate. For example, restaurants or banks produce a lot of heat that can be used for heating apartments. Yet if commercial areas are built and used later than residential areas, RDES cannot benefit from these synergies. To better understand how organizations learn to master the challenges of implementing RDES we look at five of the largest and most innovative RDES in Switzerland: ETH Hoenggerberg (Zurich), Suurstoffi (Rotkreuz), Reka-Feriendorf (Blatten), Oberfeld (Ostermundingen), Greencity (Zurich).

Using in-depth interviews with key stakeholders, we show that successfully implementing RDES depends on three factors. First, RDES are sensitive to the balance between energy supply and demand. Investors and planners therefore need to estimate and simulate local energy sources and demands in detail to ensure that the vision for the project matches the local context. Second, RDES require strong coordination between organizations. As a result, builder-owners and energy planners need to maintain an integrated overview, defining and continuously updating interfaces and responsibilities over time. Third, as the industry has little experience in implementing RDES many new skills need to be developed, such as integrating energy flows into building information models and simulating energy balances.

For more information, please contact Dr. Christof Knoeri, ETH Zurich.