EU buildings directive in turmoil amid push for hydrogen heating

[Shutterstock/Paul Barbar]

As negotiations within the European Parliament on the Energy Performance of Buildings directive head into the final stretch, political demands on heating become the centre of attention.

Heating in buildings is a key driver of energy consumption in Europe, where it is responsible for more than a third of the EU’s greenhouse gas output.

The EU’s buildings directive is currently being revamped as part of the bloc’s effort to halve emissions before the end of this decade and become climate neutral by 2050.

Yet, the negotiations are politically sensitive, with EU countries only agreeing to a “fragile compromise” in October, which drew criticism for lacking ambition and undercutting the European Commission’s initial proposal.

In December, the Parliament’s chief negotiator on the file, Green Irishman Ciaran Cuffe, struck a first political compromise on the buildings directive among the assembly’s main political groups. Unlike the position agreed by EU countries, campaigners and experts described it as “ambitious” on climate.

To lock it in, Cuffe wanted a vote on the directive to be held in the EU assembly by mid-January.

But the vote was moved to 9 February in a bid to give the Irishman more time to gather political support for the deal.

Central to Cuffe’s efforts were moves to woo the conservative European People’s Party (EPP), the single largest political faction in Parliament and one of the most vocal critics of the directive.

On Monday (30 January) night, Cuffe is set to meet his co-negotiators from the other parties, including his fellow Irishman, Sean Kelly, representing the EPP.

Kelly’s demands going into the meeting have already raised concern among experts and activists because they open the door to the controversial use of hydrogen in heating.

In new buildings, “hybrid heating systems, boilers certified to run on renewable fuels … shall not be considered fossil heating systems,” reads a proposed revision of Article 7 put forward by the EPP on 23 January, according to a document seen by EURACTIV.

A similar line was put forward for existing buildings, where initially, the European Commission envisioned that renovations would entail a switch towards green heating – largely heat pumps.

In practice, the EPP’s push could result in the continuing use of fossil-based gas boilers, which are damaging to the climate – based  the uncertain promise of a hydrogen or biogas heating future. Something that even the EU countries, for all their lack of ambition, did not opt for in their negotiating position.

Hydrogen heating, attractive to policymakers due to the theoretically low amount of change for consumers, is viewed with scepticism by most experts.

“Heating with hydrogen is inefficient and more costly compared to the alternatives such as heat pumps, district heating and solar thermal,” stresses Jan Rosenow, director of European programmes at the green think-tank Regulatory Assistance Project (RAP).

Rosenow has also reviewed 32 independent studies on the future of heating, none of which recommend hydrogen heating.

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The merits of hydrogen heating?

“Buildings are a hard-to-abate sector,” reminds Matthieu Duc, a junior policy adviser at the heating manufacturer body European Heating Industry, which is heavily influenced by the largest producers of heating appliances today: gas boiler makers.

“Therefore … hydrogen appliances can, in the long term, play a relevant role,” Duc explained.

EHI is one of the most vocal proponents of hydrogen heating. “The EPBD should support the replacement of old and inefficient appliances with more efficient alternatives that are certified to run on renewable energy, including hydrogen,” he said.

Their argument sees some existing boilers replaced by boilers ready to run on hydrogen rather than heat pumps which are more efficient and run on electricity.

According to the trade body, heating homes with hydrogen is “in line with REPowerEU,” the EU’s plan to reduce the bloc’s dependence on Russia to near zero in the second half of the decade.

Cuffe, for his part, told EURACTIV that he was committed to achieve an ambitious compromise on the EPBD.

“My team and I have been committed to achieving an ambitious Parliament mandate on this file. We continue to work closely with the shadow negotiators towards this objective,” he told EURACTIV in emailed comments.

But as the negotiations threaten to come apart at the seams, Cuffe may be tempted to ceded ground to the EPP in exchange for a stronger commitment on Minimum Energy Performance Standards (MEPS).

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[Edited by Alice Taylor and Frédéric Simon]

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