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Overcoming challenges in life cycle assessment of smart energy systems – A map of solution approaches

The current state of research points to positive effects of digitization for the efficient integration of renewable energy sources and for the coordination of generation and supply. This development towards digital, intelligent energy systems (or ‘smart energy systems’) includes new use cases at the distribution grid level, e.g., smart charging strategies for electric vehicles or energy management systems in buildings. However, an environmental assessment of such systems is a challenge in research. Standardized life cycle assessment (LCA) approaches are inadequate because smart energy systems are new technologies at the intersection of digitalization and energy with multiple intended and unintended environmental impacts.

This article aims to highlight solution approaches for LCA professionals investigating digital energy use cases. To identify challenges and approaches for the first two phases (definition of target and study framework, preparation of life cycle inventory) of a life cycle assessment, we examine seven current research projects and conduct a workshop with life cycle assessment experts. As a result, the article provides approaches for building a life cycle assessment, and for filling data gaps, as well as methods to study the long-term impacts of digital energy systems. The results of the article also include a taxonomy of potential environmental effects of digital energy systems.

The analyses show that systemic effects of the applications potentially have the greatest impact on the LCA, followed by effects caused by usage behavior as well as technological effects (manufacturing, operation, disposal of digital components). Assessing systemic and behavioral effects presents increased complexity for environmental assessment. A key solution approach includes combining the LCA method with energy system analysis or interdisciplinary studies on usage behavior. Overall, the article presents orientation strategies and recommendations that guide LCA professionals towards a holistic environmental assessment of digital energy use cases.
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