Gas crisis forces rethinking energy sources for district heating –

In recent years, energy companies operating large combined heat and power plants have been looking to switch from coal to gas as a stepping stone to decarbonization. Today, soaring gas prices have called into question how to reduce emissions from these power and heat generation facilities.

Across Europe, about 10% of heat is supplied by district heating systems, which pump heat through underground water pipes into neighborhoods or cities.

The heat has generally been generated as a by-product of electricity generation and is generally considered more climate-friendly than the individual gas boilers in each home.

But the extent to which this is true greatly depends on the fuel used in power generation.

Many of Europe’s large legacy district heating systems have historically been supplied by combined heat and power (CHP) plants, particularly in Eastern Europe where extensive pipe networks have been built by communist governments decades ago. Today, 26% of European district heating is still powered by coal-fired power plants.

Prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, some Eastern EU countries planned to switch their district heating systems to fossil gas. This was seen as a cost-effective way to meet EU emissions reduction targets for 2030 since the gas produces around half the amount of carbon emissions when burned.

But with the sharp increase in gas prices caused by the war in Ukraine, these plans are being reassessed.

A recent study made for the European Commission has identified a number of ways in which these systems could achieve intensive decarbonisation by integrating renewable and carbon-neutral energy sources and technologies, and by participating in the integration of the energy system.

Legacy coal-fired systems

The problem is that the large systems inherited from Europe are difficult beasts to change.

“We have a challenge with the decarbonization of large systems, which were historically based on fossil fuels – it requires a major effort to phase them out,” said Stefan Moser, who leads the buildings and products unit at the Department of Energy. of the European Commission.

Speaking at a recent EURACTIV EventMoser noted that several pieces of EU legislation, such as the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive, the Renewable Energy Directive and the Energy Efficiency Directive, attempt to “promote neighborhood solutions” when it comes to heating and to “ensure that we have a more systemic approach”. .

Decarbonising heating is a major challenge for Europe: heating buildings is responsible for 40% of EU emissions and 36% of final energy consumption, according to EU statistics.

And it is also a challenge for district heating, according to the Czech Republic, which currently holds the rotating Council Presidency for six months.

Tomáš Smejkal, from the Energy Strategy Unit of the Czech Ministry of Industry, said there was an overhaul of the organization of district heating systems that could be more comprehensive than just the switch from coal to gas being considered. previously.

“Some district heating cogeneration plants were oversized; they were built to provide more heat than is usually needed. So some sort of downsizing is good,” he told the EURACTIV event. “We are motivating cogeneration to switch to other fuels thanks to the EU modernization fund and the distribution of the recovery and resilience fund.”

“The larger CHP units are decentralizing,” he said, noting that large systems with a main central unit “are now moving to smaller units.” These smaller units can more easily run on heat pumps or geothermal rather than fossil fuels.

To sum up this new approach, Smejkal came up with a formula: “Change the source, reduce the size and change the fuel”.

Massive investments needed in renewable energies

The need to diversify energy sources for district heating was amplified by Uta Weiß, Program Manager for Buildings and District Heating with German think tank Agora Energiewende.

With the cost of renewable electricity and heat pumps falling, it now becomes more attractive to skip the planned intermediate step of switching from coal-fired CHP plants to gas and go straight to a renewables retrofit, she explained.

And there are a wide variety of renewable energy options available to power these systems, she said at the event.

“It’s really a technology that will help us tap into renewables like geothermal, environmental heat like sewage plants, rivers, solar. All those forms of renewable food that you can’t really tap into individually, so it really is the solution to developing carbon-neutral heating,” she said.

What is missing from the debate, Weiß added, is that there are massive investments needed for this to happen.

“In our view, district heating is extremely important for achieving climate neutrality,” she stressed. “In Germany today we have around 11% of residential heat coming from district heating and according to our scenarios we should reach a quarter of all residential heat in Germany in 2045 if we plan to have climate neutrality.”

However, this does not mean that gas decarbonisation will not happen at all, as some still see gas as the fastest and most cost-effective way to achieve EU decarbonisation targets.

In Poland, for example, plans to switch from coal to gas in district heating are still underway, despite soaring gas prices.

“Renewable energy in district heating systems cannot provide the heat supply for the largest cities based on a heating system with a capacity of hundreds of megawatts,” said Wanda Buk, vice president of regulatory affairs. at PGE, Poland’s largest electricity company.

“That’s why the biggest investment in Poland is planned for the replacement of our production with high-efficiency electricity-gas cogeneration,” she told the EURACTIV event.

PGE plans to reduce CO2 emissions from its district heating systems by 50% by 2030 and will achieve this by installing 1.9 GWt in new heating capacity and completing the phase-out of coal by 2030.

Much of that reduction will be achieved by switching from coal to natural gas, Buk said, adding that new gas infrastructure will be “100% hydrogen ready” when cleaner gases become available.

But all of this requires significant investment, explained Pauline Lucas of Euroheat and Power, an industry association representing the district heating sector.

According to Lucas, the European legislative frameworks currently in place can encourage this investment, but more will be needed.

“In the Renewable Energy Directive and the Energy Efficiency Directive, we have seen a push for heating and cooling planning at municipal and national level, which is very positive. For district heating, we see revised targets and a phased approach to decarbonising the sector. »

> Watch the full EURACTIV event below on YouTube:

This article follows the political debate organized by EURACTIV “District heating in the EU – what lies ahead?” supported by the EMP.

[Edited by Frédéric Simon/Zoran Radosavljevic]

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