The European Commission will not propose banning gas-fired home boilers “overnight”, a senior EU official has said, explaining that differences in energy mix between EU member states are just too big to apply a one-size-fits-all solution.
Will the European Commission put forward regulations to push gas boilers out of the EU market, like it did with the internal combustion engine in the car sector?
“It’s a difficult one,” admitted Paula Pinho, director at the European Commission’s energy directorate.
On the one hand, the EU executive has indeed introduced requirements across various policy programmes “in order to make sure that we gradually phase out gas boilers,” Pinho said at a European Parliament webinar earlier this week.
“But we also need to look at where the different member states stand,” she added, saying some EU countries “are much, much more advanced” than others in terms of decarbonisation.
This means gas boilers are likely to stick around for longer in some countries than in others, Pinho said.
“We do understand that this cannot occur overnight with a ban,” she explained. “So basically the idea is to gradually allow for the phase-out and put EU recovery money only where we can ensure efficient and sustainable heating. But not to go for the radical solution which would be to simply ban a technology that we see is still very widespread, and is still a reality in many homes.”
IEA backs 2025 ban on new fossil fuel boilers
The Commission’s announcement will come as a disappointment to environmental groups, which have called on the Commission to ban the sale of new gas boilers as of 2025, in line with recommendations from the International Energy Agency (IEA).
“With the average lifetime of domestic gas boilers being over 20 years, millions of European homes could still be heated by fossil fuels well past the point at which the EU is supposed to have reached net zero,” campaigners Davide Sabbadin and Melissa Zill said in an opinion article for EURACTIV.
According to their calculations, removing fossil fuel boilers from the EU market by 2025 would bring about 110 Mt of annual CO2 savings by 2050, compared to existing policies.
“This nearly represents a staggering two-thirds of the emission reductions needed from residential and public buildings by 2050,” they point out.
Green campaigners found unexpected support from IEA, which published a report earlier this year saying no new fossil fuel boilers should be sold globally if the world is to achieve net-zero emissions by mid-century.
The ban would apply as of 2025 “except where they are compatible with hydrogen,” the IEA added, saying that “natural gas use for heating drops by 98% in the period to 2050” in a net-zero emissions scenario.
Another supporter of the ban on gas boilers is the energy minister of Luxembourg, Claude Turmes.
“To reach climate neutrality, at some moment you have to ban or get rid of fossil technologies because they have a lifetime during which they stay on the market – they have an inertia,” Turmes said during a visit to Brussels earlier this month.
“This is why you need at some point to ban fossil cars, as the Commission has proposed. And this is why we need to ban gas boilers as well,” he told Brussels-based journalists on 1 October.
A phase-down instead of a phase-out?
However, banning gas boilers entirely would probably be illegal under the EU treaties, argued Alix Chambris, vice-president for global public affairs at Viessmann, the German manufacturer of heating, industrial, and refrigeration systems.
“It’s as simple as that – it’s against the Treaty on the functioning of the EU, because it infringes on the freedom of member states to decide on their energy mix,” she told participants at the Parliament event, which was supported by Viessmann.
What the European Commission can do though is introduce eco-design standards to ensure gas boilers are fit to take on increasing shares of green gases such as renewable hydrogen, she said.
“So the question is not the phase-out of gas boiler, but the phase-down,” Chambris stressed. “Gas boilers can function on green gases. The issue is the availability of green gases, and to make sure that they are able to accommodate this changing gas mix.”
Other than that, the German company says it backs the IEA’s approach to ban purely fossil gas boilers. “The IEA approach is very close to what we propose for ecodesign – mandate all boilers to be compatible with hydrogen,” said Stephan Kolb, regulatory affairs director at Viessmann.
“Those which are not must not be placed on the market anymore,” he told EURACTIV.
Chambris also agreed that electrification and the massive roll-out of heat pumps will be the main driver of decarbonisation in the building sector in the coming decades. “We know indeed that the heating demand for gas will decline,” she said.
In fact, manufacturers like Viessmann already offer a range of heating solutions, including heat pumps, home batteries, solar panels, and hybrid systems.
However, Chambris pointed to a study by Frontier Economics which demonstrates that electrification will not be sufficient to meet Europe’s heating needs at all times of the year, and especially during peak winter demand.
“This issue of peak load seasonality of heating demand is a new topic, it deserves far more attention, far more research,” Chambris stressed. The study “clearly shows that we need a small share of gas in heating to optimise the energy system,” she said.
“So the question for me is not if we need gas in heating, but how much?”
‘Clearly, there is no silver bullet’
Renée Bruel from the European Climate Foundation acknowledged that the Commission cannot simply ban appliances like gas boilers. What it can do, she added, is set eco-design standards for heating appliances that would increase their efficiency over time.
“We will probably need a transition path which includes a share of hybrid heat pumps to deal with peak demand and make the transition affordable. So we will probably need a lot of different solutions,” she said.
Paula Pinho from the European Commission concurred.
“in terms of technologies, clearly there is no silver bullet. We do need a mix of technologies, and each will play its role depending on national specificities on where we are in the transition,” she concluded.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]