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Electrifying Europe’s heating, district systems eye new technology opportunity

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Though most legacy systems rely on fossil fuels to provide heat for homes and businesses, new systems are looking towards power-to-heat technology as a possible low-carbon alternative.

One of the biggest contributors to climate change is something that most people don’t think much about – the temperature of their homes and workplaces. The heating and cooling sector of homes accounts for almost half of the European Union’s total gross final energy consumption, according to Eurostat, and almost all of that is made up of heating demands.

Sixty per cent of Europe’s heating demands are for space and water heating, and a third are for industrial heat. But despite the importance of doing so, efforts to decarbonise this sector have made slow progress.

The EU’s headline 20% energy-saving target for 2020 was not met, and today the share of renewables provides only 24.8% of the final energy consumption in the heating and cooling sector according to Eurostat.

Today’s district heating systems across Europe are mostly legacy systems operating mostly on fossil fuels. Usually, the excess heat from a power station or industrial plant is then transported through pipes to heat homes and businesses around the surrounding area.

Power-to-heat tech solutions

However, there is significant potential for using these distribution systems with new sources of energy. And some stakeholders argue that power-to-heat technologies could be a good solution, as they use renewable energy for heating.

By converting electricity into heat, power-to-heat technologies have the potential to help raise the share of renewable energy in the district heating sector. Power-to-heat could be particularly important in large heating systems which, due to their high heat demand, and with a lack of local renewables, are the most difficult to decarbonise.

District heating operators in Poland have shown particular interest in the technology since the country has a long history of district heating but also a high need to find ways to decarbonise with new systems.

“The advantage of this process is that it allows decarbonisation in district heating, and contributes to renewables deployment, to achieve the required share of renewable fuel,” Mariusz Michalek, President of the Management Board of the Polish Association of Combined Heat and Power Plants, said at a recent Euractiv event in Brussels.

Michalek remarked that “Electric boilers working with heat storage systems can use the surplus renewable electricity present in the power system to produce green heat and supply it into the supply network at the peak times of demand.”

No Commission legislation yet

The European Commission has also shown interest in this technology, but it has not yet introduced any dedicated legislation to promote its use.

Speaking at the event, Matthieu Ballu from the Commission’s energy department said currently a few different pieces of legislation cover this area.

He listed the drive to phase out of fossil boilers in the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive and new Eco-design rules, the increased renewable energy targets, the Energy Efficiency Directive’s provisions to promote renewables-based district heating and cooling, and new remuneration system services as part of the EU’s electricity market redesign.

Ballu noted that a group of national experts are discussing the topic of electrification of heating in late May as part of exchanges of good practice in the Concerted Action on the Renewable Energy Directive format. But he said the big roadblock thus far has been a lack of coordination.

“In the past, the electric and gas heat systems have been planned independently, but now we have established rules to make sure there’s an integrated vision in that planning and at the local level municipalities can make heating and cooling plans with coordination with electricity operators and district heating systems.”

Ballu said. “We also need smart infrastructure, we need to have the data in real-time about electricity, storage capacity and use.”

Lack of political will

Aurélie Beauvais, managing director of the industry association Euroheat & Power, said that in her view EU policymakers have not devoted enough thinking to this topic. “What type of real efforts have we done in Europe?” she asked.

“When I compare the momentum, the type of regulations, incentives and instruments that we have put behind the deployment of renewable electricity resources or infrastructure I certainly don’t find an equivalent kind of political will and commitment to achieve similar results in heating and cooling. So, it’s about time we have this conversation.”

Beauvais observed that the new renewable energy sources coming online have opened new opportunities to decarbonise district heating and cooling.

She said she hopes that in the new term which will start after this year following June’s EU election, the Commission will come forward with a dedicated piece of legislation on this topic. Ballu suggested that it will depend on the political mandate given to the Commission by member states, as well as the next Commission leadership and the makeup of the next European Parliament.

[By Dave Keating I Edited by Brian Maguire | Euractiv’s Advocacy Lab ]

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