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The heating revolution – a question of natural gas or electricity

Heating and cooling systems consume enormous amounts of electricity. Until now, renewable energy sources have barely had a look in

Heating and cooling processes are extremely energy-intensive: In order to generate enough power to boil one litre of cold water, Tour de France winners such as Geraint Thomas or Chris Froome would have to put the pedal to the metal for 15 minutes. As such, it will come as no surprise to hear that many stoves, kettles and small-scale air-conditioning units often require a higher rated power than many a motor scooter, boasting 1,600 watts, at least 2 HP and capable of accelerating to 45 kilometres per hour.

The heating market has massive potential to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Improved building insulation, increased efficiency of appliances and utilisation of renewable energy sources are the go-to solutions of the energy revolution. Sadly, the ‘heating revolution’ isn’t as straightforward.

Barely anyone heats with electricity

Although it is possible to easily operate air-conditioning systems with renewable electricity, as is also the case with household appliances, all information technology and many industrial plants, only few heating units can be powered by electricity.

According to the Federation of German Heating Industry (BDH), around 60 percent of German central heat generators are powered with natural gas and a further 30 percent use petroleum. In the UK, in comparison, a study conducted by the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies (OIES) shows that 86 percent of heating capacity, process heat included, is based on natural gas. In the Netherlands this figure rises to as much as 94 percent, where nine out of 10 households have access to a gas boiler for warm water and heating.

Despite other EU nations opting for district heating, electricity and biomass to supply heat, only 12 percent of thermal energy consumed across the whole of the EU is generated with electricity. It is just not as easy to power heating units with zero-emission electricity as it is for coffee machines, computer centres or even electric metal work processes.

First electricity, then warmth

According to British energy expert Malcolm Keay at OIES, this is one of the main reasons why the climate policy of the EU and its member states has, thus far, looked to the electricity sector in particular. In a paper on the ‘decarbonisation’ of heat in the United Kingdom, he writes: “Decarbonising electricity has little direct impact on  consumers’ lives (except via prices).” The heat sector is very different, says Keay, all the more reason to regulate it in order to contribute to the energy revolution.

Very little has happened on this front so far. Until now, Germany has opted for modest financial incentives for more energy-efficient buildings. The Netherlands, on the other hand, is taking a harder line and prohibited the construction of new buildings with a direct connection to the gas grid in July, instead opting for industrial waste heat, heat pumps and geothermal energy. Although gas may still be used for collective district heating. What is to then happen to the newly obsolete units is just as unclear in either country as it is in the United Kingdom.

Electric heat would put a strain on the power grid

In order to restructure the entire heating market to run on electricity, 62 million gas heating units would need to be scrapped in the four largest EU countries alone (Germany, United Kingdom, France and Italy).

On top of which, the expansive gas networks of many EU countries, including the UK, the Netherlands and Germany, would be rendered nigh on unusable. In addition, the already overloaded power grids would have to be drastically expanded, due to the circular nature of the European heating market.

In the UK, the demand for heat during winter peak times often exceeds the annual maximum of power consumption six-fold. This heat demand could decrease by improving efficiency, for example by installing heat pumps. Nevertheless, in order to facilitate more electrical heat capacity during times of peak demand, all grids would need to be geared towards no less than twice the current amount of power.

Biogas as ‘green’ heat

The latter could certainly be mitigated by installing pole-reversible heat pumps, which heat in the winter and cool in the summer. However: In Great Britain alone, around 23 million gas boilers would be rendered superfluous. It will thus come as no surprise to hear that the use of one alternative in particular is discussed: ‘green gas’.

This ‘Power-to-X’ process involves the production of synthetic fuel sources by way of wind or solar power. Until now, these have been very expensive. In the long run, however, it could become more affordable, or at least more convenient for the end consumer, to replace fossil fuels with sustainably-sourced replacements such as methane and diesel.

One of the key issues is: What costs less – converting the heating systems or producing renewable energy sources? Consultancy firms Element Energy and E4tech have conducted a study which evaluates various scenarios involving different technologies. According to the study, the most affordable solution for British consumers in the long run would most likely be to heat with hydrogen.

The costs are high but bearable

The cost of heating is set to increase with British households estimated to pay between 100 and 300 pounds more a month by 2050. The authors reassure us, however, that these increased costs would be offset by projected economic growth. “The total cost of heating represents a substantially smaller share of GDP than in 2015 under all scenarios.”

OIES analyst Keay also expects the hydrogen solution to be the cheaper option in the long run. He stresses, however, that this would initially only be the case for the UK. In Scandinavia or Germany, for example, where district heating is considerably more common than in Britain, this prognosis could be quite different.

Which route the European heating market will decide on is currently anyone’s guess. What is clear however, according to Keay, is that the EU and its member states will need to implement legislation to decarbonise the heating market as soon as possible if they want to reach their climate targets by 2050.

Photo credits: Dmitry Kalinovsky, shutterstock.com

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