Europe is sitting on a goldmine of unaccounted for renewable energy

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

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Stephan Brandligt is Deputy Mayor of Delft and Vice President of Energy Cities

The energy price crisis is creating fierce political debates over the block’s energy security with renewed pushes for centralised energy supply solutions such as hydrogen or nuclear energy.

This one-size-fits-all logic is dangerously pushing us towards sub-optimal investment decisions. The danger of de-zooming so much on the complexities involved with moving to a climate-neutral energy mix is that we tend to oversimplify the issue at end. This leads to short-sighted conclusions like the typical comment that renewable output being too unstable, we need back-up gas or nuclear facilities, period.

In my home country, the Netherlands, the involvement of local authorities mean energy supply is no longer a black or white question. It is rather a colorful patchwork of answers that depend on the local context and specificities.

The city of Delft, for example, has adopted the “energy zoning” approach to proactively plan its energy mix looking at resources and needs district by district and finding the most suitable energy solution for each neighborhood, in concertation with local stakeholders.

This in itself is a winning recipe to sort the social acceptance issue which is once again threatening the scale-up of renewable energy capacity in a large number of regions in Europe.

If we take the example of district heating and cooling systems, we can see the wonders behind “local heritage”, as solutions are linked to the history, geography and altogether the identity of a territory.

Paris has one of the oldest and biggest district heating and cooling network in the world and sits on a huge geothermal potential which currently supplies around 250, 000 households. In the town of Växjö, Sweden, the district heating network is 100% powered by sustainable biomass energy from the nearby forest wood waste and residues from the local paper industry.

In Heerlen (the Netherlands), underground hot water from the flooded coal mines provides heat to the city households. How many other such examples are we currently missing on? If we take the case of mine water alone, researchers estimate it is the most underused energy source in the UK, with one quarter of households living above former coal mines.

All these unconventional, locally available energy sources are most of the time completely overlooked in national planning and scenarios on future energy mixes.

The Fit for 55 package could become a game changer if it manages to reverse that top-down central planning logic. The European Commission has already proposed to include in the Energy Efficiency Directive a provision to systematize heat planning at local level for cities of over 50,000 inhabitants, requiring Member States to support them to the “utmost extent possible”.

This clause is indeed the crux of the matter as we local authorities are currently completely understaffed to properly assess and harness our local potential. It should also come with EU-level technical assistance.

In the Netherlands, a study recently found that the heat transition in buildings would require between 4 to 60 full-time-equivalent employees for respectively small and larger cities[i]. This EU provision is thus a welcome move in the right direction, and it should actually be mirrored in the renewable energy directive, to give us the means to conduct integrated energy planning, fostering cross-sector solutions and synergies.

Lastly, something that sounds like a no brainer but which still does not happen in most EU countries: energy planning coordination and coherence should be ensured between the various governance and institutional levels.

We hope the policy makers now assessing the package will help creating those feedback loops and giving local and regional authorities their legitimate role in the process. Because the energy planning process will only succeed with the involvement of all those who know the ‘terroir’ !

[i] Data from Andersson Elffers Felix study (2020)

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