No ‘one size fits all’ solution to decarbonise heating and cooling

District heating could offer renewable energy a technically simple access point to the heating and cooling sector. [Shutterstock]

Heating and cooling our homes, businesses and industrial processes makes up half of the EU’s energy demand. Yet, decarbonising the sector is proving a daunting task for which multiple solutions will be needed, industry experts say.

Contrary to popular belief, there is more than one solution to Europe’s heating and cooling conundrum, said Brian Vad Mathiesen, a Danish engineer who coordinates an EU-funded project aimed at drawing up decarbonisation roadmaps for the sector.

“It isn’t about 100% electrification, it isn’t about 100% greening gas. There are a multitude of solutions,” Mathiesen told policymakers, local representatives and industry delegates in Amsterdam last Friday (16 March).

The Amsterdam gathering aimed at taking stock of progress made with ‘Heat Roadmap Europe 4 (HRE4)‘, the EU-funded project Mathiesen coordinates.

And the consensus that emerged from the talks is the absence of a silver bullet solution to decarbonise the heating sector.

Stefano Lambertucci, from industry association Solar Heat Europe, hammered the point home, insisting that “simplistic” solutions focused on one dominant energy source “are not credible anymore”. Efficiency, renewable options and even green gas will go hand-in-hand “where it makes sense,” he argued.

Funded under Horizon 2020, HRE4 aims to draft national heating and cooling strategies based on data related to the actual energy needs of individual EU countries, taking into account costs and available technologies. It started work in 2016 and will run until the end of next year.

The previous three iterations of the roadmap yielded results that show energy efficiency is all-important to decarbonising heating and cooling, as estimates show that more heat is wasted during power generation than is needed to heat all the buildings in Europe.

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IEA warns against mass electrification of space heating

The multi-option mantra to heating and cooling was also promoted last week in Brussels. Speaking at the annual summit of trade association SolarPower Europe, the International Energy Agency’s Cedric Philibert warned that mass electrification of space heating alone could actually imbalance the energy system by increasing peak loads.

Most countries in Europe experience highest energy demand during the evening, when people have left work and returned home. Philibert suggested that technologies like hydrogen storage could be complementary to electrification and increased renewables use.

In the spirit of sector coupling, which Energy Union boss Maroš Šefčovič thinks is essential to decarbonising heating, head of Hydrogen Europe Jorgo Chatzimarkakis invited renewable energy providers to be part of the EU’s gas directive update by backing hydrogen as an energy vector.

Power-to-gas and power-to-hydrogen technology is still in its infancy but has been increasingly touted as an answer to renewable overcapacity. When surplus clean energy is generated it often goes to waste as storage is still too underdeveloped to keep it for when it is needed.

Converting that power into a storable material like gas or hydrogen saves the electricity for a rainy day, although concerns have been raised about costs and the fact that gas remains a carbon-emitting fuel source.

Natural gas is key to German Energiewende, says association chief

The head of one of Germany’s main natural gas associations told EURACTIV’s partner Der Tagesspiegel that the German government should back the fuel source as part of its energy transition, as well as advocating the use of power-to-gas technology.

Hot renewables

In Amsterdam, the University of Aalborg’s Susana Paardekooper explained that more district heating often means more renewable energy use, as sources like solar and wind are easy to incorporate into those systems, citing Sweden and Finland as prime examples.

In 2015, only 9% of heating was provided by district heating in the EU, while gas reigned supreme with 42%.

European Geothermal Energy Council expert Thomas Garabetian advocated a case-by-case approach to decarbonising heating and cooling, telling EURACTIV that “using local energy resources, which is the case in the Netherlands and its ambitious geothermal objectives, is the only cost-effective option”.

The data made available by HRE4 was welcomed by the Amsterdam workshop’s keynote speaker, the Dutch economic ministry’s Tjalling de Vries, who insisted that the new government is serious about the Paris Agreement and that phasing natural gas out of the energy system is unavoidable.

Next steps

Increased renewable energy use for heating and cooling is directly referenced in the EU’s update to the Renewable Energy Directive (RED), which has been drafted around a 27% renewable energy target for 2030.

The European Commission’s original proposal calls for a 1% annual increase, while the European Parliament insists it should be 2%. Member states are divided about whether even 1% is too ambitious. Trilateral talks resume on 27 March.

Although the EU executive originally backed a 27% target, fresh analysis and falling renewable prices have seemingly convinced the Commission that 30% or even higher is now an economically viable option.

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That is why the EU executive is expected to join the European Parliament, which supports 35%, in trying to convince the member states to revise their long-held 27% position.

But energy experts are concerned that the Commission will simply upgrade its own 27% benchmark without altering the rest of the proposal and are calling on the EU executive to revise all its targets, including the 1% renewable goal for heating and cooling, as well.

Although there is still no consensus on how Europe’s heating and cooling demands should be satisfied, there is now momentum behind the issue going into the sharp end of the policymaking process.

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