Ditching gas boilers for heat pumps will take the EU ‘well beyond next winter’

As part of his REPowerEU Proposal To end Russian imports of fossil fuels, the European Commission announced on May 18, 2022 an increase in its energy efficiency target for 2030 from 9% to 13%. Achieving this ambition will include doubling the deployment of heat pumps, with a view to banning gas boilers by 2029 and integrating geothermal and solar thermal energy into modernized district and collective heating systems. .

The move is a victory for energy efficiency campaigners who argue that the best way to reduce energy imports is to reduce our energy demands in the first place. “A structural reduction in energy demand must be at the heart of any strategy to increase EU energy security,” Arianna Vitali Roscini, secretary general of the Coalition for Energy Savings, said in a statement. on the plans. She suggests that the Commission’s inclusion of energy efficiency targets in its proposal will ensure long-term solutions to the energy crisis: “REPowerEU [proposes] measures that go far beyond next winter alone.

Snow-capped roofs of houses in the city of Meissen in eastern Germany. (Photo by Norbert Millauder via Getty Images)

The general response in the EU energy sphere has been a sigh of relief at seeing more robust energy efficiency policies on offer, but no festivities just yet as some say plans still fall short of the target. necessary ambition.

“We are very happy to see a phase-out date [for gas boilers] but we are not happy with the date itself, says Davide Sabbadin, Senior Policy Officer for Climate and Circular Economy at the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), a network of environmental NGOs.

The International Energy Agency calculates that gas boilers should be banned no later than 2025 to get the EU on track for its 2030 climate targets. ‘objective minimum 19–23% required to unlock the EU’s full potential for cost-effective energy savings, according to a recent report by the Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation.

“Energy prices have gone up so much that the potential for profitability has also gone up a lot,” says Brook Riley, head of European affairs for the Rockwool Group. “[The plan] it’s great but the price is really going up [humble] the 13% target.

Geothermal energy can heat Europe

Geothermal energy is often dismissed as exclusive to countries on tectonic boundaries, such as Turkey or Mexico, where the heat flows closer to the Earth’s surface. The energy potential of these countries – called deep geothermal energy – is enormous and difficult to access in Europe. However, another type – shallow geothermal – can be extracted by a geothermal heat pump (GSHP) to provide a stable and highly productive heat source for European buildings.

The Commission’s plan to integrate geothermal energy into its district and common heating systems refers to all forms of geothermal energy; the specific role of deep geothermal energy is not yet specified.

The EU’s heating and cooling sector, which accounts for half of the bloc’s total energy consumption, still runs 75% on fossil fuels. Heat pumps are an attractive alternative to traditional gas boilers as they run on electricity, giving them the potential to be 100% zero carbon (the EU electricity mix is ​​already 63% renewable and nuclear energy).

Even though they run on electricity generated from fossil fuels, heat pumps would emit only half the emissions of gas boilers.

Heat pumps work by extracting heat from the environment (ground, air or water sources) and concentrating it in a building. They are up to six times more energy efficient than traditional gas boilers. The mechanism can be reversed in hot weather to provide cooling as well.

GSHPs are more efficient than air-source heat pumps (ASHPs) because they transfer heat from the ground through the movement of water, which retains four times more heat than air. Water source heat pumps (WSHP) tend to be the the most efficient of all because of the added advantage that average water temperatures are higher and more stable throughout the year than air and ground temperatures.

ASHPs tend to be the most popular heat pump choice in Europe as they are the cheapest and easiest to install. Horizontal geothermal power plants are also relatively simple to install because their pipes are placed in shallow trenches, but they are less popular because they require up to 700 m2 of land, which is limiting in densely populated areas. Vertical GSHPs are another option, requiring only two 20cm boreholes spaced about 6m apart, but they have the highest initial costs as they require boreholes at depths of up to 100m. WSHPs are the fastest and easiest to install, but are limited by the need for a large body of water to operate.

Overcoming the problems of GSHPs with higher upfront costs and larger space requirements can provide lower annual and peak electricity demand, and the opportunity to increase efficiency through the use of heat lost. One solution offered in a March 2021 report by Regen, an energy expertise charity, is Shared floor heat exchanges. The concept is that a set of shared boreholes could draw enough geothermal energy to heat an entire street. In this scenario, each household would only need a heat pump the size of a conventional gas boiler and draw energy from the shared borehole. Service providers would work with street residents and municipal governments to gain approval for investments in these shared networks.

“Geothermal energy [in all its guises] can replace about half of the heat in the residential and low- and medium-temperature industry by 2030,” says Sanjeev Kumar, Policy Officer at the European Geothermal Energy Council. However, the potential for geothermal energy has been hampered by a lack of funding and red tape that can delay initial drilling by three to five years, he adds.

Obstacles to the heat pump

Since geothermal energy has not yet been widely integrated into individual residential and district heating systems in the EU, a significant skills gap threatens a phase-out of gas boilers by 2029. The current wait in Germany for a heat pump installer is six to eight months,” Sabbadin points out. “The shortage of professionals in EU Member States means an urgent need for a unified and certified training plan for heat pump installers.”

One of the EEB’s priorities is that the financial burden of energy transition in heating should not fall on the workers. “Training means days off,” says Sabbadin. “A professional who already works ten hours a day, six days a week to meet the demand [and make ends meet], will lose thousands of euros. We must work to find a way to finance this training [as well as deliver it],” he says.

Sabbadin stresses the importance of ensuring a non-discriminatory deployment of heat pumps, with incentives that allow households to invest with guaranteed savings on their energy bills. “It is very important that we ensure that everyone in Europe – regardless of their economic situation – is able to make the leap to renewable energy.

“Updated Authorization Rules and Additional Funding for the [Covid-19] EU Recovery and Resilience Fund combined with Smart & Climate Cities initiative [the EU’s plan to decarbonise 100 of its cities by 2030] are the perfect recipe for mass deployment [of geothermal energy]“, says Kumar.

“We also need to be aware of gender issues, as women living alone or raising a child alone tend to be in more difficult situations. [financial] situations, especially in eastern and southern Europe,” adds Sabbadin.

“Agreeing on a bill is relatively easy, but planning bigger renovation programs and helping households and businesses get the grants and find the construction workers to transport [them] – that’s the big challenge,” says Riley. He cites the EU’s vaccine deployment program as proof that large-scale collaboration can be fast and effective.

While the Commission also draws inspiration from its vaccines strategy, it does so with gas diversification in mind. It says that in “replicating the ambition of the joint vaccine purchase programme”, it will consider a “joint purchasing mechanism” to help negotiate and contract gas purchases on behalf of member states.

Riley argues that gas diversification – replacing Russian gas imports with gas imports from elsewhere – is a “distraction” from a meaningful energy transition and a missed opportunity to decarbonize.

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REPowerEU’s focus on integrating geothermal energy into heating systems means that Member States and energy companies now need to pay more attention to it. The EU move could set a precedent for other major markets such as the UK and US to increase their geothermal ambitions. “Standardization has always been a big strength of what the EU does,” says Riley.

The US Senate is still discussing a invoice this would encourage heat pump installations, and the UK hopes to install 600,000 heat pumps by 2028 and phase out gas boilers by 2035. However, like the EU, the UK ambitions are threatened by the shortage of skilled labor and the lack of investment.

Taxes that pay for policies supporting clean energy or social issues such as fuel poverty also hinder the viability of heat pumps. In the EU and UK, these taxes are applied to electricity bills more than gas bills, which means that heat pumps end up costing more to run than gas boilers.

With the rapid decarbonisation of the electricity sector (the emissions intensity of electricity generation in the EU27 decreased by more than 51% between 1990 and 2019), levies on electricity bills have less sense and many experts, like the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unitcalled for these taxes to be redirected to more polluting fuels or for treasuries to find a more appropriate method of collecting these revenues elsewhere.

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