How the European Union incentivises inefficient renewable heating


The EU’s renewables directives count what fuel is burned for heating, as opposed to the amount of heat produced.

Never has the spotlight shone so brightly on Europe’s heating and cooling sector. And for a good reason. Fossil gas makes up around 39% of the energy used to heat buildings and much of Europe wants to rapidly phase it out.

To help do so, the European Parliament recently voted in favour of a key amendment to the Renewable Energy Directive (RED): raising the annual target for the share of renewable energy in heating and cooling.

The new goal—a 2.3 percentage-point increase each year until 2030—is roughly double the one proposed in the Fit-for-55 package unveiled in 2021.

The clear signal has been set, yet there is something off with the way the metric is measured. By counting fuel burned instead of heat produced and not including electricity used for heating or cooling, the RED favours inefficient technologies.

Ignoring the mushy peas on the floor

Imagine a toddler having lunch. Her father has prepared a bowl of 300 grams of mushy peas and figures that this meal should meet half of the two-year-old’s nutrient needs for the day. She is a messy eater though and jettisons around half of her food on the ground. Once her dad sees the empty plate, he pats himself on the back, thinking that he filled her belly. He should look at the floor.

Measuring the renewable share of heating and cooling in the RED is simple. It tallies all the energy used to heat and cool from renewable sources, then divides it by the total. The key question is: which energy counts as renewable?

Unfortunately, the RED’s answer to this is flawed. It only counts final energy use or, in other words, the fuel that is delivered to the customer to use in their heating appliance. That means if someone burns a log in a fireplace at 50% efficiency and it produces 100 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of heat, how much “renewable heat” does that account for?

If you were thinking “100 kWh” you would be wrong. The RED counts that as 200 kWh, since that is the energy content of the biomass that was combusted at 50% efficiency.

That is a big problem because heating systems have different efficiencies. An electric heat pump typically produces 100 kWh of heat with 33 kWh of input electricity. The remaining 67 kWh is drawn from the ambient air for free. An 85% efficient pellet boiler needs 117 kWh.

The point: Less efficient technologies need more input energy for the same useful heat outcome. The RED discourages switching to more efficient heating appliances and electrification. It counts the full weight of the mushy peas, not just those that were eaten.

Anti-electrification policy

The other problem with the RED methodology is its scope. It does not consider the renewable electricity used for heating and cooling at all. Whether it is used to drive a heat pump or just an electrical resistance heater, it does not count toward the renewable heating and cooling target. Even for cooling, which is virtually only based on electricity.

This is an effort to avoid double-counting. The data wranglers do not want to count renewable electricity in both the power sector and the heating and cooling sector. As a data wrangler myself, I appreciate their commitment to neat allocation. But in this case, neatness has its downside.

Electricity providing a heating or cooling service should be considered towards the renewable heating and cooling target. Otherwise, heat pumps could be undervalued in terms of their contributions. If the methodology does not even consider where the electricity comes from, the heat output of the heat pump can never be fully renewable.

If the renewable share of electricity would be considered in the RED’s methodology as a heating and cooling service, the incentive to promote heat pumps would even be stronger. Member States will thus be encouraged to implement policies that aim to achieve the heating and cooling target, with the ancillary benefit of growing the deployment of efficient heat pumps to do so.

As it stands, the least efficient and least electric technologies are those that have the most potential to meet the goals under the RED. More efficient and electricity-based heating appliances risk falling behind.

The way forward

Getting metrics right is crucial to ensuring a rapid and balanced transition to clean heating and cooling. The Renewable Energy Directive’s goal should be to promote efficient heating and cooling technologies that maximise useful energy while minimising input energy.

This means counting the useful heat that is produced by a heating system, not the input energy needed. It also means including the electricity used for renewable heating and cooling.

Since electricity realistically contributes to both the headline renewable energy target (32% in the RED II and voted to increase to 45% by the European Parliament), as well as the renewable heating and cooling target. Both calculations should factor it in so that the statistics are accurate.

Double-counting can be avoided by ignoring the electricity used in the heating and cooling sector when calculating the headline target.

Metrics matter. Only by counting the useful heat produced can the Renewable Energy Directive provide the right incentives for phasing out fossil gas and spurring the clean electrification of heat.


A version of this article originally appeared on Foresight Climate & Energy.

Photo: Holger Schué from Pexels.