Think tank: Lack of EU heating and cooling laws a ‘real failure’

The European Commission needs to propose more legislation to boost the decarbonisation of heating and cooling systems. [Jim Killock/Flickr]

This article is part of our special report Heating and cooling.

The lack of effective EU legislation for the decarbonisation of Europe’s heating and cooling systems is a “real failure” that puts the bloc’s climate goals at risk, Maarten De Groote, the head of research at the Buildings Performance Institute Europe, has warned.

Maarten De Groote is head of research at the Buildings Performance Institute Europe (BPIE). The BPIE is an independent think tank focused on the energy performance of buildings.

De Groote spoke to’s James Crisp.

Why is it important to boost renewables in heating and cooling?

Well, first of all, heating and cooling represent over half of Europe’s energy demand, and currently the increase of renewables in the sector is more driven by electrification, while for heating we still rely a lot on other fossil fuel sources.

What are the barriers to renewables getting into the system?

Heating and cooling systems are more decentralised and locally installed, which is more challenging to approach through a system transition. For instance, individual buildings have mostly their own heating systems, so the switch to renewable solutions such as heat pumps or solar thermal installations depends on the building owner’s choice. For district heating systems – providing 9% of EU’s heating – there is the challenge that many of them are very old and inefficient, using conventional, polluting energy sources.

Where does the switch take place? At the supply side? Do consumers have to change their heating and cooling systems?

On the supply-side, the uptake of renewables is very much led by an electric transition, with the development of large-scale renewable electricity generators such as windmills or hydroelectric. This generation capacity is easily integrated in the larger energy system, allowing for export or import across borders.

From a district heating perspective, on the supply side, low or zero carbon systems exist, providing energy from renewables or excess heat from supermarkets for example, but those are unfortunately not yet common practice across Europe.

On the individual building level, both the client and the installer are often loyal to the technology they are familiar with. So there is a slower change of technology visible.

Renewables have a small share in the heating and cooling industry.

It is mostly gas and other fossil fuels, such as oil and coal. Renewables account for only 18% – with 11% biomass – of the primary energy supply for heating and cooling.

Does the situation vary enormously across the EU?

Yes absolutely. The situation in industry and in housing is very different.

Let’s concentrate on housing.

More than half of the total heating demand in Europe goes to heating buildings, and in colder climates it accounts even for more than 80%.

That’s a lot. So if the EU doesn’t get to grips with this, does it risk missing out on its climate goals?

Definitely. And it is not being addressed sufficiently. To decarbonise the European heat demand, you need to do two things. First you need to decrease demand drastically, according to the EU project Heat Roadmap Europe, there is a 30% to 50% cost-efficient heat reduction potential. Other studies find even higher savings potential (of over 70%) across the European building stock.

Then you have to make your supply side sustainable and efficient. On the supply side, there are two levels – one is for individual buildings, and the other is for larger areas focusing on strategies for district heating. On the individual level, if you want to decarbonise, you basically have to switch to heat pumps which can combine renewable electricity with efficient renewable heat production. However, this only makes sense if the building shell is also very efficient.

As the building stock should deliver at least 80% CO2 emission cuts, the answer is clear. With 75 to 90% of the current building stock still standing in 2050, we need to increase our efforts significantly to meet the Paris Agreement goals.

The European Commission’s recent winter package backed this collective approach but beyond that call, what has the EU actually done?

Unfortunately, the momentum to renovate our buildings is far too sluggish, and the Commission’s proposal for the revised Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD) lacks ambition and misses the opportunity to trigger more renovation activities. In the current discussions, the European Parliament is the only progressive voice, while many member states are doing their best to reduce ambition. That’s a real failure.

Can the European Parliament amend the legislation?

Bendt Bendtsen, the EP rapporteur for the EPBD revision, is working on significant improvements of the proposal. One of the major instruments is the renovation strategy. If you want to have a sustainable and renewable heating and cooling system, you need to renovate your building stock. Many MEPs support this.

Today, when building owners have to replace their heating system, they are taking a decision under time pressure, as it is mostly only considered when it has broken down. If it is -10 degrees outside, you want the system replaced the next day. So, people decide to stay with their conventional heating system, as they do not have sufficient knowledge about alternatives.

What I expect to be proposed is the introduction of a building renovation passport, which is a long-term roadmap tailored to a specific building, outlining relevant measures that would achieve the deep renovation. This allows you to already have a plan in place to replace your old system with a low-carbon system. Such an individual building renovation passport allows the owner to avoid a lock-in effect.

Because if you buy a new conventional heating system you will likely stick with it until it is broken.

Yes, as it is a big investment. Therefore, we need to ensure that citizens have the right information about solutions which are future-proof and climate-friendly.

How difficult is it for a consumer to get a renewable heating and cooling system?

It depends on the country. If you take an individual house, the installers have a crucial role to play. They need to inform their clients. And they need to have the expertise to do that.

So even if the Commission wants to decarbonise heating and cooling, it hasn’t proposed the hard legislation to follow that.

Exactly. The Commission’s proposal does too little for the renovation of existing buildings

There are trigger points in the life-cycle of a building, such as a system failure or when it is sold or rented, where effective legislation could lead to a deep renovation of the building.

So why hasn’t it happened? A lack of will from member states? Lobbying from gas companies?

What I understand is that the Euro-sceptical atmosphere dominating in 2016 meant the Commission did not want to be perceived as too prescriptive, as it would be pushed back by member states anyway. This is despite the fact that some countries are implementing effective measures and that the much-needed momentum for renovation will actually bring real benefits to European citizens.

Previous versions of the EPBD were not properly implemented by member states. They have basically been a failure, haven’t they?   

Weak implementation is indeed a problem, but the EPBD is not a failure. In the past, countries like Denmark and Germany were taking a frontrunner role, but the EPBD triggered action in many other member states. Some aspects included in the previous EPBD do make a difference, like the minimum energy performance requirements or the implementation of nearly-Zero-Energy Buildings. What is remarkable, however, is that with the discussion of the Clean Energy Package I don’t see any country taking a frontrunner role.

What needs to change? What are the three things you would make policymakers do to drive decarbonisation?

One would be stricter follow-up on implementation across all the directives.

Second would be a mix of guidelines and obligations to really increase the rate and depth of renovations.

Finally, integrating buildings and energy systems. Transforming buildings from being individual units to becoming highly-efficient micro energy-hubs, leading to a decarbonised and more flexible, resilient and efficient heating and cooling system by saving energy as well as producing, storing and supplying it.

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