EU urges quicker phase-out of gas boilers in bid to halt Russian energy imports

Around one-quarter of all EU final energy consumption is used to heat the spaces we live and work in. [s_p_a_c_e_m_a_n / Flicker]

Government incentives for the installation of new fossil fuel boilers should be stopped “much more quickly” because of Russia’s war in Ukraine, an EU official explained, saying the current 2027 end date is “far too late” and must be brought forward.

One of the most contentious issues at the moment in Brussels is Russian energy – when and how to stop using it.

On Wednesday (18 May), the European Commission unveiled its RePowerEU proposals to strengthen renewable energy targets and quickly build new infrastructure to enable imports from non-Russian fossil fuel suppliers.

EU countries are also still arguing over a proposed ban on the import of Russian oil by the end of the year.

But lawmakers may be overlooking the obvious solution that’s all around them, in the very building they’re sitting in.

Buildings account for 40% of the EU’s final energy consumption and 36% of its greenhouse gas emissions. Energy efficiency improvements could quickly bring this figure down, but incentivising renovations for old buildings has proven a challenge.

The EU has made efforts to incentivise energy-savings renovations, such as a modest requirement for publicly-owned buildings, but the Union failed to meet its energy efficiency target for 2020.

Last year, the Commission proposed to recast the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD) as part of a package of legislation aimed at cutting Europe’s greenhouse gas emissions by 55% before the end of the decade.

The recast would increase the rate and depth of buildings’ renovations, improve information on energy performance and sustainability of buildings, and ensure that all buildings will be in line with the 2050 climate neutrality requirements.

This could reduce the amount of Russian energy needed, and the incoming Czech EU presidency has identified this law as a major route for doing so.

Netherlands to ban fossil heating from 2026, make heat pumps mandatory

The Dutch government intends to ban new fossil fuel-centric heating system installations as of 2026, while introducing the mandatory use of heat pumps or connections to heat networks.

Quicker phase-out of fossil fuel boilers

But this recast proposal came well before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Stefan Moser, an official at the European Commission’s energy department, said the EU executive is well aware of this, and is now relying on the European Parliament and member states to align the EPBD with the EU’s increased ambition on clean energy.

And perhaps, he suggested, the existing requirement that member states no longer provide incentives for the installation of boilers powered by fossil fuels by 2027 should be revisited.

“Now of course with the Russian aggression on 24 February we are confronted with a situation that the political objective in itself is to actually phase out the consumption of natural gas, or reduce it at least, much more quicky because we know that we won’t be able to replace all the Russian gas within a reasonable time at acceptable prices,” he told participants at a EURACTIV event earlier this week.

“For that reason there’s a very strong argument for saying 2027 is far too late. There should be no financing any more of solutions we no longer need and we should get out of that more quickly.”

However the success of failure of the EPBD recast in making a dent in Russian energy imports will depend on action by member states.

“We would like to improve the national frameworks,” Moser explained. “Member states will remain in the driving seat, but we’ve noticed a number of weaknesses so far which have had a negative impact on the effectiveness of building policy. One is the quality of information in the energy performance certificates and also the lack of strategic approach when it comes to individual buildings. Often renovation is triggered by a particular need: safety, aesthetics, a sudden leak for instance but often not in a comprehensive manner.”

The failure to make big strides on this so far has been a real lost opportunity, explained Mariangiola Fabbri, head of research at the Buildings Performance Institute Europe (BPIE), an industry-led think tank.

BPIE started looking in 2020 at how much buildings can contribute to the EU’s goal of reducing emissions by 55% by 2030. “Our estimate is buildings really could contribute to 60% of those reductions,” she said.

The key, she added, is to first minimise the energy use of the building and then supply the remaining energy needs from renewable sources. But this will require a vast amount of renovation. “New builds in the EU are a very small proportion…in our estimation we should go to 3% of annual renovation rates.”

BPIE published a report earlier this week looking at countries that are reliant on Russian gas. “We looked at renovating walls and roofs, very simple measures,” she said. “Out of these eight member states, on average we found that 45% of final energy consumption can be saved, and 44% of gas consumption in residential space heating could be saved.”

EU rules out banning gas boilers, aims for ‘gradual phase-out’ instead

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.

Improvements to EPBD

Erkki Maillard, Senior Vice President for European Affairs at French energy company EDF, said they welcome the RePowerEU proposal but are hoping for some improvements from the European Parliament and member states during the legislative process.

“If you want to really target the worst buildings in terms of emissions, because you have a lot of existing buildings and 70% will still be there by 2050, we should incorporate this CO2 element into the energy efficiency certificate,” he said. “It should be part of the passport that has been put in place and integrated in the proposed mandatory emissions standards.” In terms of mobility and adding electric charging points, he said the distinction in the text between residential and non-residential buildings should be scrapped.

Brice Lalonde, president of the non-profit decarbonisation platform Équilibre des Énergies, said a digital upgrade, going hand-in-hand with brick-and-mortar upgrades, will be key to this effort.

“You need smart metering, because it’s very important to know exactly what’s happening in order to save more electricity,” he said. “Renewable heat is very important. We think also in the new regulations for houses you could perhaps introduce something saying all house should be PV-ready. Even if the owner doesn’t decide to put solar systems in, at least the house should be ready to do it so later on it could happen.”

For his part, Maillard said that one aspect of this recast that will be pivotal is that member states share best practices with each other. “In Europe you have good and bad practices, good and bad regulation. Regulation can make or break this renovation wave and these investments. If you look at countries like Finland, Italy or the Netherlands, they all decided to reduce taxes on the electricity and that boosted the heat pumps market. Some of them supported also the initial investment.”

> Watch the full EURACTIV event below:

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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