District heating

Posted on Monday, September 9, 2019 by Birger Lauersen

District Heating can deliver our sustainable heating

A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of visiting a district heating company in a small Danish town. The occasion was a visit from a Dutch journalist, and the managing director had invited me to join in to help with more general questions about district heating and cooling in Denmark and abroad.
It was fun to see the journalists enthusiasm for all the things he was shown and explained on our tour, from the sample consumer-substation to the gas CHP-engine, the gas boilers, the pellets-boiler, the flue-gas condenser, and the heat pump. He could hardly contain himself with joy when we drove out to see the solar thermal installation that provides 20-25 % of the heat demand of the 1.000+ households in the town.
It was also a joy to witness the enthusiasm of the managing director for running a smooth DH operation, even though it was tempered with a bit of frustration over the uncertainties the company is facing with regard to the route to becoming fully sustainable. 
Investing in new technologies, not knowing all risks and the full economic impact for customers, is a heavy decision. Not only for the managing director but also for the board of directors in the consumer-owned cooperative who ultimately will have to make the decision. 

And yet, for the Dutch journalist, that must seem as a luxury problem. What he was seeing, was a small Danish town already on a solid path towards a sustainable heat supply. And with an infrastructure and flexible portfolio of heat sources in place that most Dutch towns can only dream of. 

Change is needed
The reality that most of Europe’s villages, towns and cities are facing is, that they are locked into a heat sector dominated by individual use of fossil gas. Changing that fact is a huge challenge, so obviously countries and cities are looking for shortcuts. Can the fossil gas miraculously be substituted entirely with renewable gas, so we can keep the basic model? It seems highly unlikely. There will have to be a more fundamental change. 

That change will obviously rely on several solutions. Heating (and cooling) is very much a local affair, so local conditions, opportunities and constraints will apply. Current and realistic assessments of options will point to two and a half, not really competing, solutions; the half being energy efficiency in buildings, which may reduce demand by something like 40-60 %, and the two supply options being district heating and cooling (DHC) and heat pumps (HPs). I fail to see other options than supplying a optimized building stock with renewable energy for heating and cooling purposes, through district heating and electricity.

As far as the dense urban environment is concerned, DHC seems to be the only option. That is also increasingly recognized by Europe’s cities. That’s a comforting fact for the DHC community in Europe. Less comforting is the fact, that developing DHC in those urbanities is a challenge far beyond what they are facing in the town mentioned in the beginning. Expectation are high. Not only should DHC deliver the perfectly sustainable solution right from the beginning, but it should preferably be without any nuisance, affordable for the fuel-poor as well as attractive to the modern consumer of individual choices. 

"There will be no sustainable future without a sustainable heating and cooling supply and there will be no sustainable heating and cooling supply without district heating and cooling."

..Birger Lauersen

District Heating and Cooling can deliver on decarbonisation
It's a tall order, and it's unrealistic - and unreasonable -  to expect DHC to deliver all that under other than very favorable conditions. But favorable conditions can be created by political will and intervention.

And such determination is needed. The climate challenge is becoming ever more urgent and the gap between political declarations and real progress on meeting the challenge needs to be narrowed and closed. The newly elected European Parliament and the incoming EU-Commission have declared intentions to strengthen ambitions on climate and have promised initiatives. They should listen carefully to city level voices to ensure that European policy is compatible with local needs and realities and they should make decarbonization of heating and cooling a top priority.

DHC is a proven technology that can deliver a very significant contribution to decarbonizing the heating and cooling sector. And in addition, it can also facilitate increased decarbonization contributions from other sectors through integration. These facts represent a massive opportunity for the European DHC sector. To deliver on that opportunity, DHC needs to pursue full decarbonization of its networks, constantly innovate and ensure that it consistently listens to its customers and meets their needs. But first of all, the DHC sector needs to grow! There will be no sustainable future without a sustainable heating and cooling supply and there will be no sustainable heating and cooling supply without district heating and cooling.

Birger Lauersen is part of The Danish District Heating Association where one of his key roles is to strengthen the political interest in District Heating. You can find Birger's contact information here and read more about Danish District Heating Association on their website


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