Two innovative districts paving the way for more energy-efficient cities

17 February 2022 - Published by Sophie Rabasch

It is easy to take electricity for granted in our part of the world: for more than a century now, we have rarely needed to reflect on how electricity is produced and distributed. But that is changing. Today, demand for energy is rising sharply and production needs to undergo a shift from fossil to renewable sources. How will that transition affect the way we design our cities and societies?

Since the advent of industrialism, cities have been constructed based on the types of energy that were available at the time, with different paradigms influencing cities’ looks and layout. In November, Johanneberg Science Park visited two places in Sweden – the district of Hammarby Sjöstad in Stockholm and the city of Örebro – that are tackling the energy transition that our world is undergoing in different ways. We wanted to learn more about the business models and systems these two places developed to optimise and reduce their energy use, and how they are transitioning to the future energy system.

Cities currently cover about 3% of the planet’s surface but generate roughly 72% of all global greenhouse gas emissions and represent about 75% of mankind’s energy usage. Worldwide, 84% of the energy we use comes from fossil fuels. The construction sector is responsible for more than a third of the energy the world uses and almost 40% of its CO2 emissions (direct and indirect). Between 2010 and 2015, a whopping 52% of land newly being built on in Sweden was paved over by transport infrastructure; homes account for 38% of that land. Today, existing roads and streets cover almost five billion square metres of Sweden, which equals 846 m2/vehicle or 478 m2/inhabitant.

Stellan Fryxell, an architect at Tengbom and urban design expert with many years of experience, says community planners should be more proactive and preventive given what is happening to the climate. He also recommends a more holistic approach to issues such as infrastructure planning, to help society make the shift towards sustainability. For a long time now, Fryxell says, cities have not been densified at the same pace as people have been moving to them (urbanisation), which means cities are expanding and taking up more space. That phenomenon, which is known as urban sprawl (whereby cities and towns are characterised by an ever-lower population density and greater distances between the centre and the suburbs), means a lot of energy is wasted on simply shuttling people from one part of the city to another.

“We really need to rethink the way we plan and invest in our cities and how we use our resources. And we need to do more research from a macro perspective,” Stellan Fryxell, architect at Tengbom architecture firm, warns.

Örebro is a clear example of urbanisation. We visited ÖrebroBostäder, or ÖBO, which reviewed and analysed its entire portfolio of approx. 23,000 homes to try and reduce emissions, minimise energy usage and develop energy-efficient solutions. Efforts to overhaul ÖBO’s operations and make them more climate-friendly began in 2007.

“The clock is ticking: there are only 98 months left until 2030 (Nov 2021), the deadline for the UN’s SDGs, and time goes by quickly. In 2005, ÖBO’s energy usage was 59.7 GWh/year. In 2007, Örebro municipality decided that energy usage should be reduced by 25% in terms of electricity and 15% in terms of heating over the next ten years, all without exceeding the regular budget or requiring any extra resources – which meant we really had to optimise our operations,” says Jonas Tannerstad, Head of Electricity & Automation at ÖrebroBostäder.

Reality surpassed ÖBO’s goals: the housing company lowered its energy consumption by 50% as early as 2020 despite its portfolio growing by hundreds of new flats. Today, it aims for energy usage of 23 GWh/year by 2029 – a third of the original figure. So how did ÖrebroBostäder pull off this feat?

Jonas Tannerstad believes property owners could achieve a lot by going through their existing portfolio and looking for ways to reduce buildings’ energy usage. ÖBO’s efforts to review its energy usage now allow the company to save SEK 82 million a year and have increased the value of its portfolio by SEK 1.6 billion. What is good for business is good for the planet.


Analysing and taking measures to optimise your portfolio is great for business – and good for the planet in return

Significant profits can be made by analysing a portfolio and rethinking the way new buildings are constructed. Tannerstad does feel we tend to focus too much on newly constructed properties in cities.

“Most of the buildings we own in Örebro were built between the 50s and 70s. When we started analysing our portfolio, we assumed 10 technical systems would be responsible for 90% of our energy usage, which turned out to be a good guess. We spent a lot of time analysing and looking into those systems, the major culprits being communal laundry rooms (22%), ventilation systems (20%), lighting (19%) and collective electricity metering, whereby electricity was part of people’s rent (16%). We left no stone unturned trying to come up with smarter and more efficient solutions for these areas. After a while, we could predict the energy savings different measures would lead to. Adjusting and optimising when lights would be turned on or off, for example, allowed us to save 300,000 kWh,” Tannerstad says.

ÖBO’s analysis also revealed that several systems did not work the way they were supposed to. In the stairwells in one neighbourhood, for example, the heating system’s thermostats had stopped working decades ago, which meant the heating was on max all year round. Simply adjusting and fixing the system in those stairwells led to annual savings of more than SEK 1 million.

“ÖrebroBostäder decided to go its own way. Around 2010, Örebro went through the process of procuring a shared data-management system for the entire municipality. But ÖBO decided not to participate and rejected the winning proposal. The municipality accused us of infringing the proposal and Sweden’s Public Procurement Act, but as a company, we have the right to clearly state what we want – as long as we communicate equally clearly with all stakeholders. Today, we’re very glad we went our own way, because the system we eventually adopted was a strong contributing factor to the comprehensive solution we have today. Systemic changes like the climate transition require you to go against the grain; throughout our journey, we have had to take many difficult decisions. Sometimes, laws or other forces oppose systemic change, which in turn makes it more difficult to shift to more climate-friendly ways. But we have to dare rethink the system, dare make demands!” Tannerstad concludes.

Those lessons will be scaled up in Örebro’s new Tamarinden neighbourhood. Five property developers will together build 700 homes. Construction is expected to start in the autumn of 2022 (a smart-data platform is already in the making), with the first residents hopefully moving in around 2024–2025.


Two different models are paving the way for solutions that are adapted to their surroundings – the Örebro model and the Hammarby model.

Örebro municipality developed the eponymous model, which is based on the municipality owning the land that will be built on and thus being in a position to set a high bar for any new construction – a key strength of the model. That is exactly the case with Tamarinden, where the municipality has high ambitions in terms of issues like energy; the developers selected to execute the project have had to grapple with these demands. The new buildings will, for example, need to encompass solutions that will help achieve the climate and energy goals and ambitions that have been set for the area by Örebro municipality, ÖrebroBostäder, E.ON, Kumbro and Epiroc. The Örebro model lets the municipality both accelerate the construction of homes and ensure they will live up to high standards.

“Any growth that construction results it should be sustainable. Buildings lead to high emissions both when they are constructed and when they are lived in and managed. We’re aiming for systemic change that establishes new norms. Our ambition is to evaluate and scale up the Örebro model and apply it to other projects in the future. The way we work in Örebro right now makes the climate transition feel manageable – like an exciting challenge, not something that will hamper growth. The property sector needs to rethink its ways and not let technological developments hinder it,” says Jenny Källmén, who works at the City Planning Office in Örebro.

Developers working on Tamarinden will need to develop cutting-edge energy solutions by building in smart ways that use as little energy as possible. The buildings will not only need to generate energy but also store and distribute it (both inside the building itself and throughout the neighbourhood). The goal is to eventually create a local energy network.

“A new ordinance came into force in Sweden on 1 January 2022, exempting certain actors from paying the network concessions stipulated in Sweden’s Electricity Act (1997:857), thereby making it legal to share energy within and between properties. For Örebro municipality, which lobbied for that possibility for years, this is great news. It makes it possible for us to conduct the Tamarinden project the way we wanted to,” Källmén explains.


In Hammarby Sjöstad, residents themselves took charge of sustainable development

On the face of it, Stockholm’s Hammarby Sjöstad district is an unassuming piece of land of two square kilometres that is home to roughly 25,000 people. But ever since the first plans for the area were drawn up in the 90s, the idea has been to develop a sustainable city district that prioritises climate solutions. To achieve this, the City of Stockholm worked with a range of actors, from energy and water companies to architects and developers, and developed the so-called Hammarby model, in which an area’s rubbish, food waste, wastewater and water is recycled to reduce the neighbourhood’s energy usage and environmental footprint. Today, the district’s climate ambitions live on through the citizens’ initiative ElectriCITY Innovation and its Hammarby Sjöstad 2.0 project.

The initiative has been around since 2014 and unites 55 co-operative housing associations (which together represent 13,000 residents) plus 70-odd partners from the business sector, academia and Stockholm municipality. Together, they run various sustainability and climate projects. The district’s inhabitants are the ones driving the climate transition through real-life test beds in the buildings they live in. Their efforts have brought about systemic change in terms of, for example, energy, deliveries, digitalisation and the sharing economy.

One of the reasons why ElectriCITY/Hammarby Sjöstad 2.0 has been successful is because it has actively worked with the boards of co-operative housing associations to map needs and implement new services and innovations. By designating representatives in each association that would be responsible for energy, ElectriCITY established natural points of contact with the associations, which in turn allowed ElectriCITY to help them make the shift.

“The local energy solutions we develop have made our district more energy efficient and have allowed us to reduce our energy costs by 20%. We’ve also co-invested in energy solutions like exhaust air heat pumps, solar cells, geothermal energy and control systems, slashing our costs by another 50%. We want to produce even more energy via solar cells and biogas, and build a local micro network to store and share energy. The goal is to create a business solution that all stakeholders will benefit from by setting up a flexibility market, with co-op housing associations sharing energy with each other through a ‘citizen energy community’ – a partnership between housing associations, a local system operator (LSO) and the owner of the electricity network (in Stockholm, that is Ellevio). Enstar, which will serve as the LSO, is developing business models and an offer for cooperative housing associations to invest in new technology; we’re expecting a proposal from them in March. Today’s technology lets us measure, store and share energy, and thus create a local flexibility market,” Jörgen Lööf, CEO of ElectriCITY, enthuses.


Policy changes key to accelerating the shift

Two legal experts from RISE (Research Institute of Sweden) accompany ElectriCITY on its flexibility journey, to help develop profitable business models that simultaneously make society a better place and protect the planet.

“We always talk about actual coins in people’s pockets rather than kilowatts, to make everyone understand what the project could result in and how it would benefit them financially. Developing profitable, even lucrative, business models for everyone involved – including individual citizens – is the key,” Jörgen Lööf of ElectriCITY concludes.

As for Johanneberg Science Park, we see plenty of synergies and knowledge that could benefit the urban development projects we ourselves are working on in Varberg, in the wider Gothenburg region and abroad.

“Just like Örebro, Johanneberg Science Park is one of Sweden’s official energy-efficiency strategy nodes. Hearing about the different projects that are conducted across the country is incredibly instructive. We are so alike in many ways and face similar challenges – not least the need for policies to keep up with Sweden’s needs in terms of development,” says Stina Rydberg, Energy Project Manager at Johanneberg Science Park.

To make the region’s energy system more efficient and enable greater flexibility, we need increased integration between different energy carriers (like warmth or electricity) and different domains (like the property and mobility sector). Things in this fields are developing at a rapid pace, but both the management of different systems as well as the funding and selection of different technologies remain a challenge. The ACCESS project’s four pilot cities are exploring these issues.

“They all use different types of smart energy solutions, which means they face different challenges. But we can learn a great deal from each other despite national and regional differences. Which is why it’s so exciting to discover two projects in Sweden that have wildly different approaches but are both very successful. I hope and really believe that these projects will inspire the ACCESS cities to come up with additional solutions to accelerate the energy transition,” Linnea Johansson, ACCESS Project Manager at Johanneberg Science Park, concludes.

This field visit was conducted in the framework of the ACCESS project. The ACCESS pilot cities are Amersfoort (NL), Malmö (SE) and Mechelen (BE) and West Suffolk Council (UK). Four knowledge partners (Aarhus University, IfM Engage, Johanneberg Science Park and VITO) contribute with expertise and offer structural support. The project is funded by Interreg North Sea Region.

Watch the video of the field visit below: 

By ACCESS project representatives from Johanneberg Science Park.