Heating in buildings is responsible for almost one‑third of total EU energy demand, and around 75% of heat is still produced by burning fossil fuels. The European Union must make decarbonising heat a major priority if it hopes to meet its climate goals for 2030 and beyond. Successful decarbonisation will require a well-coordinated effort across several areas — buildings, heating systems at both the individual and district level, the power sector and the existing heating fuel supply infrastructure.
In its vision for a Green Deal for Europe, the European Commission supports this transition by driving smart sector integration and a “renovation wave” for buildings. While the transformative challenge of clean heating is formidable, it is neither unattainable nor exorbitant. We can act now – and achieve more than we thought along the way.
Whichever low-carbon heat technology decision-makers choose, energy efficiency and electrification will play a fundamental role. Energy efficiency reduces heat demand and thereby the investment required to decarbonise heat. It also enables electrified buildings to serve as a flexible resource and to help low-carbon and zero-carbon heating systems operate at higher performance. By reducing demand for and the costs associated with zero-carbon heating, energy efficiency can also support a more socially equitable heat transformation.
On a power system level, efficient electrification creates flexible heating systems that can be managed to avoid the carbon-intensive peak hours. Combined with storage, it also supports intraseasonal balancing, particularly in colder climates. While hydrogen is currently expected to be a key vector for intraseasonal balancing, analysis finds that we may have more urgent need for this limited resource in other sectors.
Dr. Jan Rosenow and Dr. Richard Lowes have developed a suite of pragmatic principles to underpin Europe’s heat decarbonisation efforts:
- Put Efficiency First.
- Recognise the value of flexible heat load.
- Understand the emissions effects of changes in load.
- Design tariffs to reward flexibility.
To help policymakers meet the task at hand, we also offer a number of policy recommendations in line with the four smart heat principles:
- Step up energy efficiency building upgrades through more ambitious targets and policies.
- Phase out carbon-intensive heating systems.
- Phase out subsidies for fossil fuel-based heating systems.
- Implement well-designed and well-funded financing mechanisms for energy efficiency and low-carbon heat.
- Ensure fair distribution of costs among different fuels.
- Encourage the flexible use of heat through the introduction of time-varying prices.
None of these recommendations on its own can deliver accelerated heat decarbonisation at the scale needed to meet the climate targets. By applying them in a holistic approach, however, we will be able to decarbonise heat and unlock the many benefits that this transition can bring to the energy system and society as a whole.