Smart Energy Regions: A Key Strategy to Scaling the Transition to a Low-Carbon Society

By Carol L. Stimmel

Regional smart grid initiatives in the EU are crucial to the successful large-scale transition to a low-carbon energy society that can meet emission targets. Regional projects have the capability to forge linkages across a culturally-cohesive constituency allowing industry, government, and academic researchers to collaborate in a single smart energy system, including distributed supply, storage, digital networks, and consumption. This article discusses studies taken in Europe to identify opportunities and roadblocks to regional frameworks that can leverage political regions to bind technology efforts with society.

Outside of Europe, regional smart grid projects are generally carried out by a single electricity provider focused on an initiative to further advance a component of smart grid development. Typically, these efforts include smart metering, demand response engagement, storage projects, or renewables integration and more recently, a broader goal of market integration and regulatory alignment. In Europe, a region has a more specific meaning, describing a governmental layer that rests just below the national, representing an historically and culturally unique or independent area that is distinct from the rest of the country. These regions, such as Corsica or Scotland, maintain considerable and growing political authority separate from central governance. Thus, smart energy regions (SERs) in Europe are well-positioned to coordinate projects across varied stakeholders that are typically difficult to align across the bodies of government, industry, and research.

From the period of March 2012 through March 2016, Smart Energy Regions gained official attention through the European Cooperation in Science and Technology (COST) Action TU1104 (for which the project details and outputs of the Action are maintained at This Action was crafted to study regionally-focused strategies for low-carbonization via a collaborative exchange of researchers representing EU countries that would address the topics of policy and technology, as well as develop a deeper understanding of the smart energy value chain. The collaborators also illustrated how local requirements are variable across regions, and as a result the drivers and barriers to low-carbon goals are context-sensitive, and that effective treatments for technological, economic, and societal needs will vary.

The Action ultimately asserted that an SER in Europe which coordinates advanced technologies and social participation in a unified system will help drive large-scale transition to a low-carbon built environment. While technology plays a central role in the success of how such an SER performs, especially with the smart grid and meters as the distinguishing features of such a system, performance also depends on improved social awareness and engagement. Thus, to achieve the goal of a low-carbon society, an SER is best-served by addressing not just the technology required to balance supply and demand in a highly-regulated fashion, but to integrate human engagement and designs of the built environment.

The collaborators endeavored to provide an examination of barriers and opportunities of solutions that could assist not just policy-makers, but theoretical researchers, homeowners, small businesses, and stakeholders in the building sector. The case studies developed in the course of their work showed that a reduction in end-use consumption balanced with operating efficiencies would reduce the requirements for resources which could be met with renewable sources. At first, this doesn’t sound particularly novel, but up until this point, there was little evidence that the transition to a large scale, low-carbon built environment should include not only advanced technology and ICT integration, but quality of life considerations, citizen engagement, and future-planning that could be implemented within variable geographic contexts. As evidence, the collaboration team proffered referenceable outputs in the form of event proceedings, books, academic publications, scientific mission reports, and training materials.

The Action concluded, in part, that ecosystem-type approaches that link supply and demand are key to adapting low carbon technologies successfully at scale, especially where smart grids already exist. Further, the SER may carry significant potential for positively impacting the energy efficiency industry and smart cities. Collaborators further concluded that a truly smart energy policy was one that emphasized a ‘bottom-up’ approach, stressing the importance of enabling human-centric resource efficiency.

In February of 2016, the COST Association produced “Smart Energy Regions: Manifesto for a zero carbon built environment” drawn from their collaborative study; Four key conclusions are gathered:

  1. Time is Running Short: There is a limited time scale within which to achieve the mandates of various policy-related carbon emission reduction targets in the EU by as soon as 2020. These mandates include set targets on emissions, efficiency and renewable energy.
  2. A Top-Down Approach is Limited: Incentives, subsidies and tax structures have disconnected environmental policy from growth economics, which may undermine community-scale efforts and the low carbon industry while creating a preference for big industry, centralized, and supply-driven solutions.
  3. A More Demand-Driven Approach is Required: Demand-driven projects must not always be founded in ICT, which allows for the creation of additive strategies to reaching policy targets, including considerations of livability, health initiatives, and generative local economic growth.
  4. Adopt Systems-Thinking: A systems approach links demand-side reduction efforts with increased renewable supply and storage penetration at a regional scale by applying technologies and processes that integrate complementary advancements in resource efficiency and demand reduction, creating a balanced, scalable, approach to low-carbon transition.

Finally, the collaborators showed that a successful regional implementation will link empowered stakeholders from across industry, the Academy, and government for knowledge sharing, project design, support, and implementation. With this approach, an SER is well-positioned to reach their low-carbon goals and stimulate innovation in their communities by defining a new value chain for smart grid efforts.

For a downloadable copy of  September 2016 eNewsletter which includes this article, please visit the IEEE Smart Grid Resource Center.



carol stimmel

Carol L. Stimmel is the founder of Manifest Mind, a NY-based sustainability consultancy, research advisor to the European-based Engerati, author of 3 standard texts, market researcher, analyst, and frequent speaker. She is best known for her two recent books Building Smart Cities: Analytics, ICT and Design Thinking and Big Data Analytics Strategies for the Smart Grid, and has participated in developing, researching, writing, and speaking on advanced technology topics, including consumer behaviors, efficiency, home energy management, the smart grid, home orchestration, microgrids, data analytics, sustainability, small-scale generation, and smart cities. Her clients include governments, established and growth companies, as well as syndicated research and academic institutions. Stimmel serves as a board member and technology advisor to a sustainable rebuilding project in Nepal, Fund for Lamjung. She received her BA in Philosophy from Randolph-Macon Woman’s College and is currently pursuing graduate work in translational research through the International Development and Social Change program at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts.

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