EU adviser flags district heating in efficiency review

District heating in Serbia

A Commission review of energy efficiency measures this summer will prioritise heating measures as a way of transforming Europe’s energy performance, according to a top Commission adviser.

Heat makes up nearly half of the world’s final energy consumption, but the heat industry says that it is routinely and unfairly overlooked in energy and climate debates.

That could be about to change, as the Commission studies its calculators for ways of toting up savings to meet its energy efficiency objectives.

“We need to focus much more on heating, where there is a lot of low-hanging fruit – much more than in electricity,” Samuel Furfari, an adviser to the European Commission’s director general for energy told EURACTIV on the fringes of an Energy Cities conference on 24 April.  

The Commission had done more work on electricity than efficiency in the heating sector, because of the difficulties in transposing a one-size-fits-all solution to countries with such different climates as Finland and Italy, according to Furfari.

“But there’s the potential to save much more energy in the field of heating [by using] district heating in combination with structural funds and biomass,” he said. “There is the potential there of improving completely the energy efficiency [picture].

The International Energy Agency (IEA) has estimated that excess heat from power stations within the OECD, comprising the world’s 34 richest countries, amounts to roughly 40 exajoules per year, equivalent to 10 times the EU’s final energy consumption.

A Heat Roadmap Europe drawn up by the Aalborg and Halmstad Universities last year argued that a strategy meshing buildings efficiency with clustered heat demand and district heating networks could save around €100 billion a year more than a strategy focused on buildings alone.

“The ideal prescription is probably a combination of demand reduction measures in buildings, further development of district heating and cooling networks in cities and heat pumps where demand is less dense,” Paul Voss, the director of Euroheat & Power told EURACTIV. “A concerted effort to tackle the question of heating and cooling at EU level would be a big step forward.”

More heat than light

The issue will be thrashed out this summer, when the Commission reviews slow progress towards meeting a non-binding goal for 2020 of improving energy efficiency performance by 20%, as measured against a 2005 baseline.

EU figures put the bloc on track for an improvement closer to 16%, and the review will have the power to propose binding energy saving measures for 2020 – and new goals for 2030 as well.  But Furfari played down the prospect that it would exercise this option. 

“It is not true that with a binding directive obliging people to do things, that we are going to have an easier result,” he said.  “We have seen how difficult it is to work with binding directives.”

Instead, he underlined the importance of “raising awareness on energy efficiency, particularly in local authorities.” 

Turning up the district heat

District heating is a way of maximising heat usage by combining heat and electricity production.  With Combined Heat and Power, for example, waste heat from industry can be trapped and channelled away from chimney vents and towards district networks, where it may heats residential and commercial properties, saving costly and unnecessary extra emissions in the process.

Excess heat produced renewable energies that cannot be sold on the grid can also be stored using hydro power to generate power at other times.

But some environmentalists balk at the prospect of improved district heating being used as cover for the building of new coal plants.

“There is a big risk of that,” Darek Urbaniak, WWF’s energy policy officer told EURACTIV. “That risk is strengthened by the fact that the 2030 package’s proposed Emissions Trading System reform does not guarantee a price for CO2 that will prevent us from locking the worst polluting infrastructure into our energy future.”

Urbaniak said that new coal builds using district heating as a figleaf would be most likely in Poland, Germany and some central and East European countries, where blueprints have already been drawn up.  “What is most worrying about these plans is that they would use lignite instead of hard coal, which is even more damaging for the climate,” he said.

Cogeneration is the process of producing heat and electricity at the same time. It is also known as "combined heat and power" (CHP), Usually fuelled by natural gas, renewable energies or waste, cogeneration installations can vary in size from small units in residential buildings to large facilities in so-called district-heating systems that provide heat and electricity for entire neighborhoods.

Because of the simultaneous production of heat and electricity, cogeneration is generally considered to be more efficient and ecological than traditional electricity-producing facilities, such as nuclear or coal power plants, which simply expel heat into the atmosphere as a byproduct of electricity production. 

In February 2004, the EU adopted the CHP Directive to promote cogeneration in the EU by addressing several problems, including inadequate control of energy monopolies, inadequate support from local and regional authorities, incomplete market liberalisation, regulatory obstacles and the lack of European standards for network connection.

  • June/July 2014: EU pledged to review progress towards meeting 2020 energy efficiency goals and targets for 2030

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