Bioenergy: the necessary force to decarbonise buildings

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

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The Renovation Wave initiative has been identified as a priority not only under the European Green Deal, but also as part of the European Commission’s post-COVID19 recovery plan. To become an effective tool, the initiative must address the high energy costs for consumers while simultaneously promoting the sector’s sustainable development, including the reskilling and upskilling of construction workers.

Vice-President Timmermans recently stated the need to accompany the ‘building envelope’ of the renovation with efficient heating. This holistic approach would have a multiplier effect on both the energy efficiency and climate performance of buildings. Yet a colossal challenge lies ahead. The EU’s building stock is characterised by old, inefficient heating and cooling systems and needs to urgently address the negative externalities associated with such inherently ineffective systems.

Our buildings are heated by old and inefficient appliances resulting in high GHG emission and low energy efficiency. Almost 30% of the current heating appliances in the EU were installed before 1992 and only 40% after 2002[1], with a similar trend experienced among first generation biomass appliances. The current building stock is responsible for 36% of GHG emissions and represents 40% of energy consumption in the EU. Most of the energy consumed (80 %) is used for space and water heating. Nowadays, almost 80% of heating and cooling consumption is provided by fossil fuels.

The current picture clearly demonstrates that even by reducing the overall energy consumption as recommended within the Energy Efficiency Directive, the installed capacity of renewable heating and cooling in the EU must grow exponentially in order to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. A drastic market uptake of energy efficient appliances is needed. Through fossil-to-renewable scrappage schemes, alongside other measures supporting the update or replacement of existing renewable capacity towards more efficient appliances, both energy efficiency and the environment will benefit.

Bioenergy has come a long way since open fires. Today’s modern biomass equipment’s and district heating have achieved excellent levels of performance.

Modern biomass appliances can reach efficiency levels of around 90% and emit 287 time less particulate matter (PM) compared to traditional open fires (which have an estimated efficiency of 30% or less). According to a recent study in France, the sole replacement of old appliances by new biomass ones would slash up to 74% of PM emissions (and up to 92% if combined with quality feedstocks).

When it comes to modern district heating and cooling networks, most are fossil based.[2] Renewable sources like bioenergy have the potential to replace highly pollutant fuels – in particular coal which continues to heat 20% of the networks. Biomass-based networks reduce GHG emissions (unlike their fossil alternatives), limit the reliance on volatile fossil fuel prices and promote energy independence by promoting local economy.

The only way to deliver on carbon neutrality by 2050 is to promote a 100% renewable-based energy mix. To achieve this goal – while assuring the security of supply – the energy system must shift from a vertical structure to a horizontal one, in which buildings both consume and produce energy, particularly for heat.

While the Renewable Energy Directive and Eco-Design Directive already provide a solid framework for public authorities to support the modernisation of the existing stock, its replacement must be further supported.

The Renovation Wave presents substantial opportunity for the EU along three central pillars:

Firstly, the decarbonisation of the heating system is possible under the condition that a comprehensive phase-out programme of fuel subsidies and appliances is complemented with a carbon pricing mechanism incentivising clean solutions. The Energy Taxation Directive should be reviewed and be based on energy and carbon content. This approach will help deliver on climate objectives and spark a transition to clean fuels and improved energy efficiency.

Secondly, decision-makers need to foster investors’ and end-user’s confidence, particularly during the current post-COVID19 recovery phase. To boost our economy, we need to invest in solutions that will have long-lasting, positive effect for our environment and economy. It is worth remembering that in the European Commission’s report on Competitiveness of the heating and cooling industry and services bioenergy is recognised as the only cost-competitive technology. In fact, the use of bioenergy can further reduce utility bills, making it a strong tool to fight energy poverty.

Finally, the renovation wave initiative represents an opportunity to support the re-skilling and up-skilling of workers towards more sustainable practices and use of materials. While this will reinforce EU’s workforce and create new green jobs, it will also contribute to the reinforcement of the EU RES sector, alongside reinforcing RES global industrial leadership and competitiveness – in particular for those technologies such as bioenergy that already enjoy a strong EU-based value chain.

Renovating the building stock will be a daunting task for the EU and its Member States, but it is a necessary step towards decarbonising the EU. Ambitious programmes such as the Renovation Wave require significant mobilisation of both private and public resources, but equally a sound and coherent policy framework that will enable the penetration of renewables in the current system and reinforce investors’ confidence. While only time will tell how we perform in this task, we are afforded less and less with which to transform challenge into opportunity and ensure EU leadership in the fight against climate change

[1] https://ec.europa.eu/energy/sites/ener/files/documents/Report%20WP2.pdf, p. 181

[2]https://ec.europa.eu/energy/sites/ener/files/documents/mapping-hc-final_report-wp3-wp4.pdf

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