The oPEN Thor Living Lab in Genk, Belgium will turn an existing residential area into an energy-positive neighbourhood. “Over the next decades, a huge renovation wave will be needed to make our homes more sustainable. By contributing to pilot projects like these, we are laying the groundwork for a carbon-neutral society,” says Laurent Van Thournout, Deputy General Manager of the EMEA Development Center of Daikin Europe.

The oPEN Thor project was launched on 19 October 2021 and is led by EnergyVille, a partnership between several Belgian universities, research institutes and industry representatives such as Daikin. “More than 30 existing homes – some rented, some privately owned –will be transformed into a so-called Positive Energy Neighbourhood (PEN), meaning more energy will be produced on the site than is consumed,” explains Laurent Van Thournout.

The test site includes the residential social housing area Nieuw Texas and parts of the adjacent suburban area. It is one of three Living Labs to be realised within the oPEN Lab initiative, which is funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme. Apart from the Genk site, oPEN Lab also encompasses similar test sites in Pamplona, Spain and Tartu, Estonia.

A huge transformation is needed

A complete transformation of the residential building sector will be key to achieve a carbon-neutral society by 2050, as envisioned by the European Union. “It is estimated that buildings account for more than one third of all CO2 emissions in the EU. Almost 200 million buildings are considered inefficient, with the vast majority of them built in the previous century. Many of these will still be around by 2050, so it comes as no surprise that the European Union is pushing for a huge Renovation Wave,” says Laurent Van Thournout.

“Most of the technology that is needed to realise this transformation, is already available and widely used in the construction of new homes,” emphasizes Laurent Van Thournout. “But renovation still presents the construction industry with considerable challenges. Older houses were simply not conceived with these technologies in mind and several issues – such as poor insulation – make it difficult to obtain the required efficiency. There is also the question of affordability. A complete overhaul of the building’s structure is usually beyond the financial limits of the occupants.”

A playground for innovation

A lot of research is still needed to develop solutions that are suitable for the renovation market. “Pilot projects like oPEN Thor in Genk act as a playground for research institutes and the construction industry to explore new concepts and evaluate their feasibility,” says Laurent Van Thournout. The oPEN Lab project unites 33 partners from 7 countries, representing every link in the chain. The focus will be on energy-saving measures, local production of renewable energy, energy storage solutions and smart demand response.

“How can we store excess energy produced in summer for heating during winter? Do we install solar panels and heat-pumps in every home, or do we produce renewable energy for the entire neighbourhood, which is then re-distributed? These are just some of the questions we hope to answer,” says Laurent Van Thournout.

Daikin will be lending its expertise in heat-pump technology to the oPEN Thor project. “Heat-pumps are generally seen as one of the key technologies to decarbonise heating processes. Daikin has been investing heavily in the technology and has successfully introduced a wide range of solutions to the market. Today, we can cover any need, from small individual units to communal heating for entire residential areas. Needless to say, we are very proud to contribute to this project and we are looking forward to jointly develop new solutions that will eventually make renovation easier and more affordable for everyone.”