La “Bella Vita” with bioenergy

Bella Vita is more than just a housing project close to Waterloo — it is an ingenious mix between Belgian social traditions and innovative spirit. What started as a farming school for children with learning disorders in 1920 quickly expanded as a community project with the addition of residences and a communal garden that placed intergenerational exchange at its heart.

In 2007, when the Bella Vita district decided to further develop and reinvent itself, it was only natural to integrate an environmental component to its objectives to be “intergenerational, ecological and sustainable”. Today, Bella Vita is made up of 87 houses, 187 apartments, a kindergarten, retirement home, clinic and other integrated services, all fueled with renewables — truly a place where families, the young and the elderly can share their lives while having a positive environmental impact. But how exactly did Bella Vita achieve this ecological transition? With bioenergy.

Buildings, renovated and designed to be energy efficient, are heated by two 750 kW in-house boilers powered by wood chips, for a total heated surface of 50000 m2. The hot water from the boilers is exchanged with 125 substations through a 6 km state-of-the-art system of insulated pipes that reduces the energy loss to 14 watts per meter. The plant is co owned by Green Invest and Veolia, which is also the operator of the installations. The biomass heating network in particular was a strong asset of the whole project that allowed the investors to win the procurement from the city of Waterloo. The initial investment for the heating plant is 1.5 million EUR for the network and 0.8 million EUR for the boiler room with an estimated payback time of the extra investment cost of 12 years. The project also generates fulltime employment, including on-site running and maintenance of the plant.

The boilers in Bella Vita provide a constant and secure supply of space heating (90%) and sanitary water (10%) during the entire year, keeping the price of the energy to the end-user competitive with natural gas prices. The quality of the chips and the advanced technology of the boilers ensure a very high efficiency, equivalent to 88%, and a low level of emissions. Bella Vita is an excellent example of how biomass can be integrated into modern and comfortable residences, thus providing renewable heating and lowering CO2 footprints, while staying competitive with natural gas prices.

But it wasn’t exactly a bed of roses, either. Obstacles had to be overcome by project developers before reaching this successful balance. First, the investors never got the planned subsides from the region for the implementation of the district heating system, causing both a delay in launching the plant and financial uncertainty. The initiative also struggled to find a reliable wood chips supplier. As the quality of the chips was not constant, the fluctuating moisture content reduced the efficiency of the boilers while foreign objects caused obstructions within the screw. The problem was overcome thanks to the collaboration with Copo, a wood chips production company located 50 km away from the plant, committed to the local and sustainable production of biomass for energy.

In order to replicate projects like Bella Vita across Belgium and throughout Europe, both policy and quality issues have to be addressed. Investors need stable and long-term frameworks for their projects to secure the shift to renewables, which current discussions at EU-level over the recast of the renewable energy directive need to keep in mind. Regarding quality, more and more initiatives at local, national and international level are needed to ensure that consumers get high quality material for their installations, as it is the case with the development of schemes such as ENplus for wood pellets, that have tangibly improved the quality of biofuels.

For more information on the BellaVita project, contact Alessia Gaetani, gaetani@aebiom.org