Technological innovation in the Iren Group is central to the strategic choices and the definition of the products and services offered.
The Business Plan to 2030, approved by the Board of Directors of Iren S.p.A. on 11 November 2021, provides for more than 2 billion euro investments in innovative technologies and for digitalisation. This confirms the centrality of innovation in the Iren Vision, which will be expressed in the development of all the sectors in which it operates with the objective of making the Group an example of excellence and innovation in the multi‐utility sector. In particular, the Business Plan is in line with the sector macro-trends identified, namely the decarbonisation and development of renewables, the circular economy, energy efficiency and the protection of natural resources.
From this perspective, the main innovation activities underway within the Group are aimed at researching and adopting technologies and processes to support the sustainable development of the reference businesses.
The Iren Group manages innovation processes through an open innovation model and, consistently, has launched profitable collaborations with Universities, Research Centres, Innovation Hubs and Start-ups. Additionally, it takes an active part in working groups and associations on specific research and development and promotes events such as conferences, workshops and hackathons. In this regard, in 2021 Iren received the Smau Innovation Award as a recognition of Italian excellence for the model of innovation between companies and public bodies.
The year 2021 was characterised by the continuation of technical activities related to the Group’s various co-financed projects and by the development, also in partnership with innovative companies and start-ups, of internal technological projects on the basis of planning which, starting from an analysis of the long-term scenario, is aimed at giving the Group the tools needed to seize the opportunities and mitigate the risks deriving from the evolution of the markets in which it operates.
The activities of Iren Up, the Corporate Venture Capital programme, launched in 2018 with the aim of supporting the highest potential Italian start-ups in the cleantech sector, from clean technologies to the circular economy, continued. The programme envisages investments with tickets ranging from 100,000 euro to 2 million euro, depending on the Start-up's development phase and requirements.
Due to the continuation of the Covid-19 crisis in 2021, the usual Iren Startup Award event dedicated to the search for start-ups did not take place, but the scouting activity continued through collaboration with local and international accelerators.
The management of equity investments in start-ups in which the Group has invested continued, concluding several supplementary agreements and the disbursement of tranches upon achieving the milestones conceived in these agreements. In particular, an important investment has been concluded in Enerbrain, a start-up active in the field of energy efficiency; the transaction, which involved national and international financial and industrial operators, will allow the company to expand its business abroad, consolidating its growth. Moreover, in the first months of the year, a first investment was made in the start-up Remat, which deals with polyurethane recycling: this innovative company is perfectly integrated into the recycling chain managed by the Group. In collaboration with Remat, during the year other tranches of funding were disbursed, enabling the recycling plant to be started up.
Among the initiatives in which Iren has participated, bringing its contribution in terms of process innovation and applied research, there are the collaborations with the Competence Centres (promoted by the Ministries of Economic Development and Economy) in Turin (“Competence Industry Manufacturing 4.0 – CIM 4.0”) and Genoa (“Competence Centre for the Security and Optimisation of Critical Infrastructures” Association – “START 4.0”).
Also in 2021, Iren contributed to the creation of important innovation projects co‐financed with public funds for research. On this point, the main projects underway are presented below. The total investment for the Iren Group is approximately 8.6 million euro, of which around half being financed. In relation to these amounts, the expense incurred during the year was approximately 2,165,000 euro, of which approximately 1,280,000 euro covered by loans.
The projects completed and in progress in 2021 are presented below.
Material recovery from WEEE R1/R2 (Ministry of Environment Call for Proposals)
The project, concluded in August 2021, had as its main objective the development of technologies with high replicability and rapidly transferable to the industrial world, aimed at optimising the management of waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE), and in particular the recovery of polyurethane from refrigerators (WEEE R1) as secondary raw material and optimisation of the separation of cement from the carcass of washing machines (WEEE R2). During 2021, Iren Ambiente and AMIAT, partners in the project, completed the technical-economic feasibility analysis for the implementation of a refining line for the polyurethane produced by the treatment of WEEE R1; tests of a prototype for the semi-automated cutting of washing machine carcasses were also carried out at the AMIAT Trattamento Beni Durevoli (TBD) plant.
SATURNO (Call for proposals Bioeconomy Technological Platform - Piedmont Region)
The project provides for the validation, on an industrial platform, of the conversion of the organic fraction of waste and of the CO2 of vehicle exhausts and industrial production, into biofuels and biochemicals; specifically, the project provides for use of the organic fraction of waste of municipal origin, normally converted into thermal energy, electricity, bio‐methane and compost, through the extraction of substances with high value added such as hydrogen, carboxylic acids, biofertilisers, and biostimulants. Iren is involved in the project together with its associate GAIA, where tests will be carried out on the separation and treatment of bio-plastics separated from the OFMSW (Organic Fraction of Municipal Solid Waste); Iren is also involved in the development of the Business Plan for the SATURNO integrated biorefinery, which will be tested and validated during the project.
During 2021, Iren continued to collect and process experimental data in order to set up the development of the Business Plan. In addition to the field tests of the optical selector, experimental activities have also been developed on the treatment and valorisation of bio-plastics within the traditional anaerobic digestion/composting processes.
OnlyPlastic (RFCS – 2019)
Started in September 2020, the OnlyPlastic project aims to replace fossil carbon sources (coal, coke, petroleum coke) in the electric arc furnaces of the Feralpi steel plant in Lonato (BS) with densified polymers derived from residues from the treatment of plastic waste. In order to achieve optimum use of SRA (secondary reducing agent) granules in Feralpi's steel plant, a prototype is to be built for the transport, handling and loading of the granules, as well as the design of a new injection system that meets the characteristics of the SRA obtained in accordance with the specifications of the UNI 10667-17 standard.
Within the project, the role of Iren, through I.BLU, is configured in the production of densified plastic material to be used as a reducing agent/ foam alternative to fossil fuels in steel production processes. I.BLU will supply a product deriving from post-consumer plastic residues destined for injection and a product designed for loading into baskets.
In the first months of the project, I.BLU took part in the characterisation and optimisation of the product for use in steelworks. Preparatory activities have been completed for the supply of reducing agent to the project partner, which will be activated during 2022.
PolynSPIRE (Horizon 2020)
The PolynSPIRE project aims to demonstrate a range of sustainable, innovative and cost-effective solutions for the energy and material recovery of post-consumer plastics and industrial waste. Three macro-sectors of innovation are considered: 1) chemical recycling assisted by the use of microwaves and magnetic catalysts; 2) advanced additives and irradiation of polymers with high energy radiation to promote high quality plastic recycling; 3) development of plastic waste as a carbon source in the steel industry. Specifically, Iren participates in the project through its subsidiary I.BLU contributing to the third line of research. With regard to this issue, activities concerning the optimisation of the formulation and production process of the I.BLU granule have been completed and industrial testing in steel mills has begun. Supplies of reducing agent to the project partner have been completed.
CHESTER (Horizon 2020)
The project has the objective of developing and integrating an innovative solution of the Power‐to‐Heat‐to‐Power type that will enable maximisation of the exploitation of non‐programmable electricity RESs and thermal RESs already combined with TLR (district heating) systems. The system involved in the study, named CHEST, making use of heat pumps, latent heat storages and Organic Rankine Cycles (ORCs), will make it possible to transform electricity into heat, store it and subsequently produce new electricity.
Iren is involved in the project as district heating network operator and has provided operational data of electricity and heat production of the Turin plants and district heating network demand as input to the CHEST system model. Iren is carrying out supervision in the development phases of the system components and control infrastructure, and during 2021, started the analysis and development of business models related to market opportunities, identified with the support of the project partners, which provide for the exploitation of the CHEST system in RES plants.
Energy Shield (Horizon 2020)
The project intends to develop an integrated cyber security platform, usable by all actors of the energy chain (Transmission system operators, distributors, aggregators, producers) to prevent future attacks and learn how to defend yourself by analysing past attacks. Iren participates as a Distributor (through IRETI) supporting the partners in the definition of the specific cyber security instruments, preparing a feasibility test (on paper) and possibly an “offline” field test applied to one or more subsystems of the network (remote control, SCADA, smart meters, supporting TLC networks etc.). During 2021, Group companies primarily supported two development verticals. The first of these involved the development of a platform to test employees' behaviour, competence and awareness of cyber security issues (Security Behaviour Analysis tool). This vertical is led by NTUA University in Athens. Iren and Ireti tested the platform through a first group of about 15 beta-users, translating the questionnaire in Italian, identifying criticalities and strengths and laying the foundations for a test extended to a wider population (about 250 users), scheduled for 2022.
The second vertical of development concerns an Anomaly Detection system to detect any telecontrol penetrations at the primary substation level. In 2021, the system was installed at the primary substation at the Martinetto site and initial measurements and testing were performed.
ENERGYNIUS (POR-FESR 2014-2020 Emilia-Romagna)
The ENERGYNIUS (acronym for Energy Networks Integration for Urban Systems) project intends to outline models of development that enable Energy Communities and Energy Districts to carry out bidirectional exchanges with energy networks, thus offering energy and services to the regional/national system. Software instruments based on optimised management algorithms, real‐time simulation models and energy district diagnostics will also be developed to identify the best technological and control solutions for energy production, storage and distribution systems. Some of the algorithms developed will be integrated into a hardware device for the control of energy plants. Software and hardware instruments will be validated in both simulated and real environments on at least three study cases. Iren participates in the project as an external partner, providing its point of view on the development of the project tools and eventually with field tests.
EVERYWH2ERE (Horizon 2020)
The aim of the project is to develop a “plug and play” hydrogen fuel cell generator, easy to transport around the city for temporary electrical power in various sectors (building sites, music festivals, temporary events, exhibition centres) and able to guarantee high levels of reliability and safety as well as a reduction in emissions compared to traditional generators. The Iren Group, as a third party of Environment Park, will test a hydrogen skid, currently installed at the Friem headquarters in Segrate (Milan), for electricity production during events/trade fairs (Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS)/mobile generator mode).
During 2021, Iren supervised the validation process of the generators and began to identify, despite the continuation of the Covid-19 emergency, events related to the city of Turin during which to test the 25 kW generator in 2022, starting to prepare the necessary documentation for the authorisation process.
INCIT-EV (Horizon 2020)
The objective of the INCIT-EV project is to develop and field test a set of electric vehicle charging infrastructure, hardware and software technologies and business models to drive large-scale adoption of electric mobility.
The Iren Group participates in the project through the parent, Iren Mercato and Ireti for the development of the pilot project in the Caio Mario interchange car park in Turin, which intends to test a system of DC columns (with both slow and fast charging), directly connected to the direct current power supply of the tram line. During 2021, Iren took part in the definition of the specifications for the construction of the conversion substation and a supply tender was issued that will allow the works to be carried out in the first half of 2022.
PLANET (Horizon 2020)
The Planet project, concluded in January 2021, studied technologies and regulatory constraints for the synergistic exploitation of distribution networks (electricity, gas and thermal). During the project storage and conversion technologies have been modelled; multi-grid intelligent automated management systems have been simulated; new business models have been created; energy conversion systems have been tested in a physical pilot.
The Group designed and installed a pilot heat pump system that can be managed remotely, to integrate the heating and cooling system in a building it manages in Turin. The aim of the experimentation was to test in the field the joint management of energy vectors for the activation of demand flexibility strategies with a view to providing ancillary services to the electricity grid. The heat pump was tested in the winter heating season to balance load imbalances or participate in ancillary electricity markets, while optimising the building's energy needs and flexibility measures required by the electrical grid.
PUMP-HEAT (Horizon 2020)
The project has set the objective of increasing the flexibility of conventional fossil source plants, in particular combined cycles, in order to satisfy the ever‐increasing needs of the network to offset the demand fluctuations deriving from renewable sources. The project investigated the combination of heat pumps with cogeneration combined cycle and conventional combined cycle plants; the combination with systems for heat and cold storage was also analysed. From the preliminary evaluations made in the project, it is expected that a large heat pump would result in a 1.5 percentage point increase in plant efficiency in a fully cogeneration configuration.
5G‐Solutions (Horizon 2020)
The objective of the 5G‐Solutions project, launched in 2019, is to test, in different field tests, the functioning, potential and limits of the 5G network, con particular attention to assessing the performance indicators defined by the standardisation bodies responsible. These tests will focus on verticals Factories of the Future, Smart Energy, Smart Cities, Smart Ports, Media & Entertainment. Iren participates in the activities of the “Energy” vertical, assessing the benefits related to integration and use of the 5G network (and of its main characteristics of speed, limited latency and high reliability) in the cases of use of Demand Side Management at building and Smart Charging level of electric vehicle fleets, through two pilots developed and managed by the Group.
In 2021, the software infrastructure for the control and monitoring of case studies was defined and tested in Beta version, working on the integration and compatibility with existing services and the ICT security policies of the Group. Hardware systems for interfacing with the heat pump, as well as a prototype for regulating household loads, were installed and tested in advance.
Evolution2G (EMEurope Call 2016)
The "eVolution2G" project, which began in June 2018 and ended in January 2021, investigated and tested on the field the Vehicle to Grid (V2G) concept, that is a system in which electric vehicles have a balancing role on electricity grids. The main innovations that the project has brought forward are based on the development of a prototype EMCS (Energy Management and Control System) for the management of data according to the different stakeholders, with a view to improving the balance of the electricity grid, and on prototype tests of V2G charging solutions, at both domestic and public/urban level. During the project, Iren has equipped itself with 2 bi-directional DC prototype columns and has carried out several experimental tests related to different usage scenarios (i.e. vehicle charging, powering a stand-alone house, using the car battery to power the grid).
The project arises from the merger of two project ideas WATERTECH and SMART WATER presented under the MIUR Smart Cities tender with a view to offering a more robust analysis of the integrated water service, aiming both to manage problems related to water distribution networks, and to apply innovative models and technologies for treating waste water.
In 2021, research activities continued on the aqueduct and wastewater facilities identified as case studies.
MARILIA - MARA-BASED INDUSTRIAL LOW-COST IDENTIFICATION ASSAYS (H2020)
The MARILIA project, started in September 2020, aims to develop, from Technology Readiness Level 2/3 to 5, a new low-cost, high-sensitivity, expeditive test for the detection of pathogens in water samples, but potentially applicable also in other sectors such as food, health, agriculture. The objective is to validate the test at laboratory level, developed for the identification of a set of bacteria (to be identified with the contribution of Iren), laying the foundations for a subsequent deployment in the field by introducing a significant streamlining in terms of speed and cost compared to current analytical practices. During 2021, Iren, with the collaboration of Iren Laboratori, took part in the project activities related to the development of the sensor, contributing to the dissemination of the project results with a multiplicity of stakeholders (also related to the technological platform Water Europe) and with the working groups in charge of the European standardisation of the reference guidelines for the online monitoring.
PRELUDE (Horizon 2020)
The objective of the project, started at the end of 2020, is to test, in several pilot projects in Europe, solutions in the field of innovative management of buildings and plants, free-running mode, self-consumption and integration of renewable sources. From the technological point of view, PRELUDE intends to integrate multiple physical and mathematical models developed by the partners, databases of the different pilots and monitoring and control systems of the assets of the pilot projects in a single modular/middleware platform that is based on FusiX (metadata infrastructure and DSS - Decision Support System), developed by partner EMTECH in previous EU projects.
Iren and Iren Smart Solutions are participating in the project as coordinators of the Italian Pilot, installing in some apartments different levels of sensing, implementation, and direct feedback on inhabitants.
In 2021, the use cases were identified, specifically the apartment building on which the pilot will be implemented, and the components to be installed in each apartment were identified and purchased.
RES-DHC (Horizon 2020)
The objective of the project is to create tools to support regulators and stakeholders in increasing the use of renewables in district heating and cooling systems. Programmatic and technical-economic assessment tools, actions to improve policies and regulatory frameworks, and innovative dissemination and communication means will be tested in six European pilot areas with the aim of validating their benefits and providing a set of tools for future energy projects.
Iren and Iren Energia participate in RES-DHC to test the tools and skills of the partners on studies/projects for the renewal of existing TLR networks or new expansion projects, with the primary objective of improving the way in which the Group's innovative district heating 4.0 projects are planned, communicated and accepted. During 2021, the consortium of Italian stakeholders was inaugurated, which will provide support for the implementation of programmatic measures for the promotion of district heating from renewables defined in the last quarter of 2021 by Iren and Ambiente Italia, the main Italian partner. Several workshops and coaching activities were also organised on the topic of district heating from renewables, curated by the foreign partners of the project and from which Iren and the Italian stakeholders benefited.
BESTSAFE4IREN (Tender PRIA4.0 ‐ Competence center CIM4.0)
The project aims to increase the levels of redundancy, security and interoperability of the equipment for the Safety of workers, integrating them with a wireless LoRaWAN infrastructure and a new generation DLT patent able to certify in a standardised and anonymised way on blockchain networks the data from field sensors in order to ensure the appropriate level of neutrality needed for operational, regulatory, insurance and legal use.
The solution developed in the project has been successfully tested during 2021 on a portion of TRM and will be tested in the first months of 2022 on a portion of the hillside of the City of Turin where Iren operators deal with waste collection.
Multipliers (Horizon 2020)
The project aims at facilitating the introduction of new scientific ideas, practices and approaches in schools, which can offer to the communities, of which teachers and pupils are part, a space for open innovation, on scientific issues that have an impact on citizens' lives. To achieve the goal, multiplayer partnerships (Open Science Communities - OSCs) will be formed involving schools, families, civil society organisations, informal education providers, policy makers, media, scientific institutions, and businesses in six EU countries, diverse in terms of geographic location and economic status. OSCs will jointly select socio-scientific issues to be addressed and develop real-life projects to be implemented in schools involving more than 1,500 students of all grade levels in the same six countries. Students will interact with faculty and be involved in data collection and decision making. Through open community events, they will share and rethink their experiences, collaborating with families and businesses and acting as knowledge multipliers.
RUN (Liguria Region)
The RUN project, which began in July 2021, involves the development and demonstration of a service for now-casting the risk of flooding during heavy rains using IoT technologies and Big Data analysis tools designed for Smart Cities and urban drainage network managers, enabling faster actions to protect people and property and those in charge of maintaining drains, who will be able to plan interventions for optimal system operation. The project will make use of low-cost IoT sensor networks, information on elements exposed to danger on an Open Data basis (people, vehicles and assets), algorithms for evaluating surface runoff and continuous assessment of the expected level of risk made usable on an IT platform for the benefit of authorities and managers of drainage networks.
During 2021, alongside the financed projects, Iren launched approximately 40 initiatives and self‐financed projects, which engaged resources internal and external to the company. In particular, as regards external collaborations, Iren activated multiple research contracts with Italian Universities which regarded aspects such as the design and testing of innovative plant solutions in support of the Iren businesses, the creation of models and the identification of new processes and services.
Some significant self‐financed projects are presented below:
Research activities continued for optimisation of water pipeline networks during the year. Specifically, tests continued on sensors for monitoring hydraulic transients in water distribution networks and on the instrumentation, in order to identify and eliminate the causes generating the damaging effects on pipes, causing breakages. Iren has also started collaborations aimed at testing the use of specific probes to detect the presence of water in biomasses through the measurement of cosmic rays in the aqueduct and in the hydroelectric field for the water estimation of snowpacks.
Moreover, in 2021 Iren co-financed a Proof of Concept aimed at the functional analysis of innovative smart meters characterised by noise loggers, which allow the pre-localisation of water losses present in the vicinity of the site where the meter is located.
Following the patent filing of a technological nucleus that demonstrated the feasibility of the acoustic telemetry technique and in continuity with the activities carried out during 2020, in 2021 Iren realised the components of a data transmission system using acoustic modems, testing them on portions of the network realised in the laboratory (bed test) and in the field. In order to obtain components applicable to different types of water mains, 4 different receptor/transmitter pairs were built and tested.
Work continued on researching new technologies to be applied to purification processes aimed at optimising management and recovering materials and energy from the supply chain. Related to optimised management, during 2021, scouting activity focused on energy efficiency technologies and on-line process monitoring. As a result of this activity, some field tests have been activated on innovative mixing systems with low energy consumption and probes to detect the metabolic activity of bacteria.
In the area of sludge reduction and recovery of materials and energy, collaboration with start-ups and research bodies continued, with the aim of assessing the yields and applicability of innovative processes such as hydrolysis, gasification/pyrolysis or biotechnological processes for the extraction of high-value compounds, such as biopolymers. In particular, the possibility of integrating biopolymer (PHA) extraction processes in the sludge line of sewage treatment plants was investigated through a technical-economic feasibility study.
The research activity involving Hera, Iren, SMAT, and A2A also continued. During the year, in fact, Iren continued to share its experience and knowledge through joint development of innovative projects, with repercussions to the benefit of the said Companies, with the objective of developing applied research, innovation and technological development in the context of management of the water service. In particular, projects were concluded dedicated to (i) sensors for on-line monitoring dedicated to early warning; (ii) the recovery of substances useful for the production of bioplastics from the purification cycle of urban waste water; (iii) the management of the presence of Legionella in water networks by comparing different analytical methods; (iv) the monitoring of chlorites and chlorates by identifying infrastructural and technological interventions, control and mitigation activities, and behaviours in the field of transparency and communication, in view of the entry into force of new limits provided by the revision of the European Drinking Water Directive for the two disinfection by-products (DBPs) Chlorite and Chlorate. Additional research projects of common interest have been defined and will be implemented in the 2022-2023 two-year period.
Projects included in the AMGA Foundation’s research programme
During the year, Iren continued its collaboration in the context of research projects funded by the AMGA Foundation relating to economic-regulatory issues and technical-scientific aspects related to water, energy and environmental resources. Research projects completed in 2021 include:
- application of WSP to the water service: methodological and informative aspects for the stakeholders involved;
- reuse of purified wastewater: analysis of the hygienic-sanitary impact;
- optimal methods of managing urban drainage systems based on innovative monitoring of rainfall using IOT Low‐Power Wide‐Area Network technology;
- markets in search of regulation: tenders for gas distribution concessions;
- the economic, environmental and organisational performance of the Italian water sector.
Some projects begun in the previous biennium, including as a result of the emergency due to the pandemic, are still underway and will be completed during the year 2022. They include:
- resilience indicators in water distribution systems with respect to climatic and socio‐economic changes;
- regulation of water and environmental services: analysis of factors that determine operating and capital costs, and possible impacts on price recognition models;
- applicability of Landfill Mining to old landfill sites in Italy.
The following projects selected under the second edition of Project 4.0, a call for proposals aimed at funding annual research projects related to the water, energy and environmental sectors, were also launched in 2021:
- assessment of the residual risk in the effluent and sewage sludge for the presence of emerging micropollutants and identification of the best technologies to be adopted to reduce the risk;
- evaluation of the presence of viral indicators in sludge from both wastewater purification and organic waste treatment, through molecular biology and electron microscopy methods;
- development of an innovative technology for the degradation of emerging pollutants through the use of non-conventional photocatalysts;
- multifunctional nanostructures as catalysts for clean energy production and simultaneous water purification;
- sewage treatment plants: possible hotspots in the spread of antibiotic resistance;
- water quality and exposome: focus on emerging contaminants from wastewater;
- stabilisation of PFAS in landfill leachate;
- analysis of retail prices on energy markets. Evidence from the ARERA offers portal;
- integrated asset management in a context of geo-hydrological risk and climate change;
- the lever of tariff regulation to stimulate the engagement and awareness of users towards behaviours that favour waste prevention, reuse and recycling.
During 2021, research activities continued on scouting and quanti-qualitative analysis of the energy and environmental performance of processes and technologies for capturing and converting CO₂ produced by various types of emissions into products with high added value. Specifically, with regard to the capture and use of carbon dioxide produced by biogas upgrading processes, a study has been developed to assess the potential for integrating algal cultures with anaerobic digestion processes of OFMSW (nutrient use and CO₂; biomass valorisation). In the last months of the year, an experimental activity was also launched with the aim of testing an automated module of vertical farming in CO₂-enriched atmosphere and assessing its industrial applicability as a system of capture and sequestration of the CO2 produced by emission flows.
Again with a view to optimising the management of the organic waste chain, a regulatory and market analysis was carried out on possible alternatives for the valorisation of digestate/compost through the extraction and production of fertilised products in compliance with the new European regulations.
In addition, the research activity launched in 2020 aimed at defining and evaluating a correlation model between the chemical composition of gaseous emissions (from waste treatment) and odour concentration continued.
During 2021, research activities continued on the valorisation of bottom and fly ashes produced by the Group's incineration plants. In particular, the activities carried out, which have involved Universities and industries, have focused on the analysis of the technological state of the art and on the evaluation of the industrial applicability of the same. Specifically, an in-depth study has been developed on innovative processes for the treatment and recovery of material from fly ashes.
With regard to the treatment of WEEE, following the development of a feasibility study with annexed field tests of a robotic system based on artificial vision for the automation of the process of dismantling end-of-life LCD screens treated at the TBD - Trattamento Beni Durevoli (Treatment of Durable Goods) plant in Volpiano (Turin), activities were started for the inclusion of the industrial line within the same plant.
Finally, with regard to the treatment and recovery of plastic waste, a study has been launched with the aim of quantifying the reduction of the emission impacts deriving from the use of Bluair®, produced by I-BLU, as a reducing agent in steelworks.
Innovation Industry 4.0
Iren is continuing a research activity on seeking innovative solutions falling under the definition of “Industry 4.0” applicable to the Energy Business Unit, with particular reference to the maintenance sector. The analysis focused on specific verticals, that is operator safety, infrastructure monitoring and big data, concentrating on the thermoelectric, hydroelectric and district heating sectors.
During 2021, testing activities using drones for inspections of dams, reservoirs and rocky slopes continued. The industrialisation process of the rover prototype for the inspection of the branch tunnels with the definition of specifications and requirements has also started: the robot, once completed, will be able to walk through the tunnels acquiring 3D images and maps, communicating with the outside via a wireless network during the inspection. In addition, on the basis of positive experiences in the hydroelectric sector, tests on the use of "smart glasses" systems have also been launched in the thermoelectric sector.
In 2021, in the colder months, the experimental technique of monitoring district heating networks by air was once again used. Thanks to the use of a high‐resolution thermographic camera, mounted on an aircraft, it was possible to fly, in a winter night, over the city of Turin and identify using thermal image processing software the water and heat leaks of the network. Moreover, on the basis of the thermal mapping obtained, a research project was conducted for the development of machine learning algorithms for predictive and multi-temporal analysis with the aim of developing models and methods for advanced and predictive maintenance of the district heating network of Turin.
Other innovations in the energy field
In the research area, during the year, Iren:
- promoted a project for the creation of an integrated supply chain for the production of hydrogen from electrolysis fed by RES-E plants (hydroelectric and waste-to-energy) owned by the Group and its use in the mobility sector in the Turin area. On the subject of hydrogen, Iren is active at the tables of local and national bodies and associations and constantly follows the updates of the regulations on the production, distribution and use of hydrogen;
- conducted a preliminary feasibility analysis of the energy and environmental performance of processes and technologies for the capture and conversion of CO2 from waste-to-energy into high value-added products (chemicals, gas, fuels etc.);
- transformed a portion of the uncovered parking lot of the Martinetto headquarters into an experimental laboratory for testing smart lighting systems and technologies for smart cities. In this area, innovative lighting fixtures from different manufacturers were installed. They are equipped with sensors capable of processing external stimuli (radar, presence sensors) and can be controlled remotely via a platform capable of integrating inputs from different databases. The area also saw the installation of air quality sensors connected via both WiFi and LoRaWAN and the testing of a street lighting system integral to an electric vehicle charging station;
- continued the testing, on a user of the district heating network of Turin, of innovative storage systems based on phase change materials (PCM), with the aim of evaluating their performance in terms of charge-discharge efficiency and reduction of the morning peak, with a consequent increase of thermal energy available in the network, useful to supply new users with the same infrastructure;
- launched a research project for the analysis of the evolutionary scenarios of thermal consumption due to variations in technical and exogenous factors over time and the possible effects on the Turin district heating network and on the production units;
- carried out research to estimate the impacts of public and private electric mobility on Turin's electricity distribution network, with the aim of supporting network development decisions;
- conducted two projects to test solutions to support renewable energy communities. In a first pilot we focused on testing management platforms with a particular focus on User Experience and supervised battery optimisation. The second pilot focused on the testing of User Devices able to communicate with second generation meters and provide useful information for the management of both Energy Communities and Recharge Infrastructure Controllers;
- started a testing activity of solutions for Smart Charging services at the service of the company fleet, with the implementation of a pilot at the multi-storey parking lot of the Iren headquarters in Turin Martinetto with integrated service in the fleet management system through the activation of Application Programming Interface;
- developed a study on innovation in the field of electric mobility, with a focus on the technological and regulatory state of the art regarding V1G, V2G and plug&charge and the analysis of start-ups active in the sector;
- conducted research on protocols to ensure the interoperability of public lighting systems serving the smart-city with a particular focus on platforms for supervised management and innovative protocols such as TalQ or Ucifi;
- initiated a study of home load management controllers for maximising self-consumption of renewable energy installed at the single-family home level. The study will focus on integrating heating/cooling systems, appliances, and battery systems into a single integrated logic that considers on-site photovoltaic production;
- completed the LoRa Castellarano project, which provided for the implementation of the IoT connectivity network based on the LoRaWAN communication protocol covering the Municipality of Castellarano. The project tested distributed sensor solutions to serve the smart city, starting with assets managed directly by IREN, such as the gas distribution network, the drinking water network, and waste collection, and including additional services for citizens, such as monitoring weather conditions, air quality, car traffic, noise, parking, and the comfort conditions of some buildings owned by the municipality. The pilot project ended on 30 June 2021.
Corporate Venture Capital – Iren UP
During 2021, numerous activities were carried out in the context of the Corporate Venture Capital programme.
The collaboration with the start-up Re Mat, active in the recycling of Polyurethane, continued during the year: in fact, a further tranche of financing was concluded for the start-up of the plant and the commercial agreement with Iren Ambiente. Moreover, during the year an important investment was concluded in the start-up Enerbrain, active in the energy efficiency sector: the investment saw the participation of other institutional investors and a major international industrial player. Regarding the other start-up in the portfolio, i-Tes, the contractual terms of collaboration were extended for an additional year. Finally, at the end of the year an experimentation agreement was concluded with an innovative company operating in the agritech sector.
The Group participated in institutional events and collaborations, such as the National Innovation Award (NIA) and Techstars, which allowed it to continue its scouting activities for new start-ups, identifying possible new investment targets and open innovation activities for 2022.
The research and analysis of start-ups at national level during 2021 has produced contacts with more than 200 start-ups and with about twenty of these Open Innovation activities are underway.