Positive Energy Districts: The way forward for an ambitious district transformation?


Publication date

November 18, 2021

Forget about net zero and fossil-free districts, positive energy districts (PEDs) aim at generating more renewable energy than they consume! Researchers across Europe are working on scaling smart energy management to transform our urban areas into carbon-neutral communities.

Defining a Positive Energy District: a process and a goal

A PED can be, as JPI Urban Europe defines it, “an urban neighbourhood with annual net zero energy import and net zero CO₂ emissions working towards a surplus production of renewable energy, integrated in an urban and regional energy system”. In the first months of the Cities4PEDs project, the partners have exchanged with other cities developing PEDs or highly innovative projects across Europe and have analysed relevant aspects to consider when discussing how a PED can be defined. One of the first outcomes is that a PED requires both a process and a target. PEDs have ambitious objectives on the level of a positive energy balance, energy efficiency, energy flexibility, integration between systems and infrastructures, and liveability including social, economic and environmental sustainability. Therefore, a process of transformation (or implementation for new neighbourhoods) by means of instruments, methods, and collaborations is necessary.

There are several aspects to consider when envisioning an operational definition of PEDs: the different criteria to assess them – besides a positive yearly energy balance, the system boundaries (e.g. is mobility included in the energy balance?), the co-ownership of residents of the transformation, the coordination of local stakeholders, the different phases, the governance system, the links with other local challenges, such as affordable housing and quality of public space.

These different aspects call for a monitoring model and process that include different criteria and allow to measure the progress made for each of them, towards the transformation goals. Furthermore, although quantitative assessments allow to monitor the quality of the PED implementation (for instance in terms of energy use of new or retrofitted buildings), they are not sufficient to drive the transformation process: hard data is not tangible without narratives to explain the context factors (national, regional and local).[1]

Combining city instruments and neighbourhoods’ dynamics to develop PEDs

The in-depth review of 7 case studies by the Cities4PEDs consortium highlights the importance of the local context: there is not one PED model but several typologies of PED strategies, combining diverse governance models, energy systems and district transformations. For instance, the development of the Royal Seaport in Stockholm can be seen as an example of a high-target, city-coordinated energy district, while the Northern district in Brussels is a hyper diverse, decentrally coordinated project.

The analysis highlights the importance of understanding the specific organisational model for every PED project: the management of the urban development and the transformation process requires important resources and often even a specific management body. It aims to orchestrate public and private interests in order to support the district development or implementation, and can take different forms: a coordination unit inside the city administration; a coordination platform with the city administration and external stakeholders; or a (semi-)publicly owned Special Purpose Vehicle as used for the development of the Aspern Seestadt area in Vienna. The city administration plays a pivotal facilitator role, between different institutional levels and with private developers and civil society actors.

Cities that want to implement a PED concept can resort to several instruments, such as civil law agreements with landowners, criteria in public procurement processes or land sales contracts. In a newly-built environment, these instruments are particularly used to transfer high targets, especially in terms of renewable energy production and efficient energy use, to developers and other stakeholders. However, they are more difficult to mobilise in existing districts.

Co-creation and local ownership of PED developments are a challenge: in newly-built areas, the future residents are often not known at the development stage. In existing districts, the scepticism towards city-driven transformation process can also be a barrier. In the BoTu district, the city of Rotterdam is working with the Delfshaven citizen cooperative on community building since 2018: a 10-year financial commitment allows the cooperative to build community projects with residents to increase the quality of life via the concept of energy commons.

It starts to be clear that there is not one single way to implement PED in our cities. Findings, instruments and strategies recurring in both newly-built environment and existing districts can be identified, and possible crosspollination and learning from each other can be envisioned. Through the combination of top-down actions and bottom-up approaches, PEDs can be implemented: governance models are then strongly required to mediate conflicts that may arise from these two approaches.

Find out more about the learnings and success factors from the 7 case studies and the strategies and instruments for cities to develop PEDs in the PED Atlas!

[1] You can learn more about the goals that a European PED definition could have and what its different aspects means in this short publication.


In Cities4PEDs, a two-year research project in the framework of JPI Urban Europe, the cities of Brussels, Vienna and Stockholm are investigating with other local partners how Positive Energy Districts (PEDs) can be implemented in these different local contexts, and which instruments (organisational structures, tools, energy systems and collaboration methods) are necessary to further develop PEDs. Find out more about the project here.