March 5. 2024. 2:03

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Climate-neutral buildings require efficient heating and cooling networks


On 9th February, the Committee on Industry, Research and Energy of the European Parliament adopted its proposal on the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD). The EPBD is critical to support the decarbonisation of European buildings, much of which depends on the rapid phase-out of fossil-based heating.

The Directive took yet another dimension since the Ukraine war, which exposed Europe’s dependence on fossil fuel imports and the importance of heating decarbonisation to achieve our energy independence. Heating and cooling are responsible for about half of the EU energy demand, with more than 40% supplied by gas.

Locally owned and a flagship of the European energy industry, district heating and cooling networks (DHC) are a critical solution to phase out the use of fossil fuels in buildings.

According to the Heat Roadmap Europe, they could supply half of Europe’s heat demand by 2050 by enabling the use of green and local energy sources such as geothermal, solar thermal, sustainable biomass or recovered heat, which its potential remains largely untapped in Europe.

Coupled with large heat pumps and thermal storage, district energy networks can absorb large amounts of renewable electricity, providing cost-efficient balancing and storage to the electricity grid and supplying renewable heating to EU cities.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating: the seven European countries with the highest national shares of renewables in heating and cooling also have the most developed district heating systems (Iceland, Sweden, Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Denmark, and Lithuania).

Other European countries such as Germany, Austria, France and the Netherlands have also enacted ambitious laws further to incentivise the uptake of smart and sustainable DHC networks.

The 2050 vision for 100% renewable heating and cooling in Europe states that many cities must develop modern DHC solutions to bring sustainable heating and cooling to densely populated areas. About 60 million European citizens are already connected to a heating and cooling network, with an additional 80 million living in cities equipped with at least one district heating system.

The forthcoming Energy Efficiency Directive (EED) set a clear path for the complete decarbonisation of district heating and cooling systems: according to the definition of “Efficient district heating and cooling systems”, district heating and cooling networks will move away from the use of fossil fuels and achieve climate neutrality by 2050, with 100% of their future energy supply covered by renewable and recovered heat sources.

But the EP proposal for “Zero emission building” criteria contradicts the provisions laid out by the EED by requiring that from 2028 onwards; new buildings will not be able to be entirely heated or cooled by any DHC systems that still rely on fossil fuels at any level – even if they are in the process of phasing out fossil fuels. Furthermore, buildings renovated according to the definition of “deep renovation” after 2027 should also meet the Zero Emission Buildings criteria and may therefore be disconnected from DHC grids.

The “ZEB” definition isn’t only contradictory to the EED: it falls short of acknowledging the transitional nature of district heating decarbonisation, which, like any other energy carrier (electricity, hydrogen), will require time to transition from fossil fuels fully.

In Munich, for example, almost a fifth of the buildings are connected to a district heating network, which is over 800 kilometres long. Currently, it is still mainly powered by coal, gas and waste incineration. To achieve climate neutrality by 2035, the city’s “Heat plan” combines the gradual decarbonisation of its heating and cooling networks with the necessary expansion of its infrastructure: most of the 89,200 residential buildings in the district heating network are expected to remain connected to district heating, with a further 15,000 buildings to be connected by 2035.

The proposal for “Zero Emission Building criteria” in the EPBD is at risk of discouraging investment in the decarbonisation of existing DHC networks in case the locally available clean energy sources and environment require more than 4-5 years to decarbonise the networks completely.

The impact would be particularly strong for countries where district heating and cooling networks are already well developed, such as Germany or Poland (with respectively 11 and 16 million citizens are connected to DHC according to Euroheat & Power’s DHC Market outlook of 2019). It would deprive EU cities of an efficient, clean and sustainable heating solution and jeopardise Europe’s ability to decarbonise its building stock fully by 2050.

To raise awareness on this important issue, Euroheat & Power, together with Energy Cities, Housing Europe EFIEES, presented a joint position paper to enable the connection of deeply renovated buildings to efficient district heating and cooling systems, which will be climate-neutral by 2050 as requested by the forthcoming Energy Efficiency Directive (EED).