From the outside, it looks like any other terraced house in this leafy Dutch street. And stepping inside, the tile-clad hallway seems like many old European houses I’ve visited – spacious and somewhat sombre.

The large touchscreen control panel perched on the living room mantelpiece is the first hint that this is no ordinary home.

I don’t know it yet, but the building is already monitoring me. It tracks which rooms I use and when. It keeps a record of the times I enter and leave the house. By learning my habits, it avoids heating empty rooms and ensures the heat is on when I need it. 

This is my first day in the EcoGenie, a 1930s house in The Hague, the Netherlands, where Shell researches how low-carbon technologies such as solar panels and heat pumps work together.

The idea, says Peter Breithaupt, the lead project scientist, is to find practical ways for people to reduce their bills and carbon footprints, and help Shell understand how renewable technologies could change the way people use energy in the future. 

“We wanted to learn how homeowners can make the biggest cuts in their carbon dioxide emissions at the lowest cost,” says Breithaupt, who frequently stays in the five-bedroom house. “This project is all about learning by doing.”

Old houses are often poorly insulated and costly to keep warm. But refurbishing them with enough insulation to make a significant difference is prohibitively expensive for most homeowners, says Breithaupt.

So the EcoGenie team of scientists set out to discover better ways of cutting the cost and carbon impact of heating homes in colder climates, using readily available technology.

“It’s now cheaper to invest in renewable energy than to insulate an old home,” says Breithaupt, as he takes our lunch out of the solar-powered refrigerator.

The technology that the fridge uses to keep our ham and cheese cool also keeps the EcoGenie house warm in winter.

While refrigerators absorb heat from food and drink and release it out of the back of the appliance, heat pumps absorb heat from the air or ground and pump it into the house.

“Heat pumps work like fridges in reverse,” says Dr Alice Elliott, another Shell scientist who set up and named the EcoGenie.

Using the EcoGenie as a living laboratory, Dr Elliott and the rest of the team have managed to cut the house’s carbon emissions by more than half. They use a gas boiler as backup on the coldest winter days, when the air and ground-source heat pumps struggle to absorb enough warmth.

But we don’t need heating on this summer’s day, as I sit sipping coffee from the solar-powered espresso machine with a former resident of the house.

I’m struggling to see what is different about living here. But I think that’s the point – the house works quietly in the background while you get on with life.

“The only change in my daily routine was that every night, before I went to sleep, I would look at the screen to check that everything was working properly,” says Stephanie Demoullin, who lived in the house over winter as a student and now works for Shell as an engineer.

Most of the renewable energy experiments seem to happen quietly in the garden shed or in the cellar, a maze of pipes, heat exchangers and sensor wires.

Then I spy something that looks like a digital thermostat on the living room wall. It has buttons for different situations, such as “arriving home”, “going on holiday” and “party”. I wonder what that last button does. There’s no sign of any mirror balls or sound systems, and it’s bedtime anyway.

It’s my first night in the room. So the house won’t be expecting me. Or will it?

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