Making the EU heat sector carbon-free
More than a quarter of the energy consumed in the European Union is used to heat buildings. Much of this energy is obtained from fossil fuels: only about 22 per cent comes from renewables. If the EU is to become climate-neutral by 2050, we must switch as quickly as possible to heating buildings with energy from renewable sources such as solar thermal systems or heat pumps. This must be accompanied by a progressive phase-out of climate-damaging oil- and gas-fired heating systems. A recent study carried out by the Oeko-Institut and Prof. Stefan Klinski for the European Climate Foundation shows how this can be accomplished in the EU member states and for the EU as a whole.
Phasing out fossil fuels at the level of EU member states
The study shows that many EU states have already introduced regulations for phasing out fossil-fuel boilers or are planning to do so. In some cases these rules go significantly further than German legislation, which merely bans the installation of oil- and coal-fired boilers from 2026 – and allows many exemptions. Denmark, for example, banned the installation of oil- and gas-fired boilers in new buildings in 2013. The installation of fossil-fuel boilers in new buildings is also prohibited in Austria. Slovenia plans to ban the installation of oil- and coal-fired boilers from 2023. Ireland is planning to ban oil-fired boilers in new buildings from 2022 and gas-fired boilers from 2025. In the Netherlands, connecting new buildings to the gas grid is already illegal.
The researchers recommend tightening the national regulations in various ways. They say that the rules on phasing out boilers should apply as soon as possible and should:
- cover all fossil fuels including natural gas in a phased process,
- apply to both existing and new buildings,
- prohibit hybrid systems that combine fossil fuels and renewables, in order to avoid long-term dependency on part-fossil systems,
- ideally avoid or make only very limited use of biofuels, synthetic fuels and hydrogen, because their future availability is uncertain,
- be integrated into a spatial heat plan, because in many places the phase-out of gas creates opportunities for system solutions based on renewable district heating schemes.
Use EU regulations for the fossil phase-out
In its legal section the study shows that EU law does not preclude national regulations on the phase-out of fossil-fuel heating systems. In particular, it cannot be concluded from the definition of energy efficiency standards for heating boilers under the Ecodesign Directive that more extensive national rules banning fossil fuels would constitute an impermissible infringement of the internal market.
Moreover, the experts show that EU law itself could provide systematic stimulus for a phase-out strategy of this sort. There are various possible avenues:
- The Ecodesign Directive: Within the ecodesign framework, mandatory efficiency standards for new heating boilers could be defined that would permit only highly efficient heat pumps and gradually exclude fossil systems.
- The Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD): Under this directive it could be specified, for example, that by 2025 buildings must be heated to a defined extent by renewables. Standards for new buildings could require them to be heated entirely by carbon-free systems.
- The Renewable Energy Directive (RED): This directive could specify tiered quantitative targets for the use of renewables in buildings. For example, a target of 100 per cent renewables could be specified for new buildings, with other defined targets for renovations and the replacement of heating systems in the building stock.
- The Energy Efficiency Directive (EED): Renovation requirements should be tightened, especially in relation to public buildings. For example, the installation of new fossil-fuel heating boilers during major refurbishment or in the course of boiler replacement should be banned. In addition, assistance should be provided to regions and municipalities to enable them to draw up strategic heat plans.
“All the directives are currently being revised at EU level,” says Dr Sibylle Braungardt, an expert in climate change mitigation in the buildings sector at the Oeko-Institut. “This presents a good opportunity to start making the building stock and new-builds throughout the EU more climate-friendly. Phasing out fossil-fuel heating systems can make an important contribution to the achievement of climate targets in the buildings sector.”