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Localising the heating transition: A colourful example from Amsterdam

In this blog I want to share the example of the city of Amsterdam to highlight how successfully decarbonising heat will mean using a range of technologies & energy vectors, targeted based on a local approach to planning. Thus far in the heating transition this approach has been far from the norm, but it looks like things could be starting to change.

An orange blueprint to make heating green

By 2022, through measures laid out in the Dutch Government’s KlimaatAkkoord, all municipalities in the Netherlands must draw up plans for how heat will be decarbonised in their respective areas. In the long run, the country wants to stop using any natural gas for heating by 2050 (but not gaseous fuels entirely).

It’s hard to disagree that this is a sensible approach  – it is a clear long-term signal of ambition at the national level to set the goal posts, while giving flexibility and autonomy at the local level to get things done.  But of course, the approach will also have its challenges. Municipalities / local authorities across Europe are not always best equipped with such expertise, and this is a key reason why there are not more widespread examples of this approach by now. But, in some places this approach – which could be referred to as the localisation of heat – is starting to move forward.

A Dam’ bright idea for decarbonising a city

The Netherlands is one such place and the Amsterdam ‘Transition Vision for Heat’ (TVH) is the first in the country to be published. The map below shows what the different heating zones of the city and surrounding areas will be in the future. There is the possibility that the final version signed off may look a little different, as public discussion and critique is also a key element in the Dutch design.

map of amsterdam

Source: Gemeente Amsterdam (2020)

Without reading the legend it’s obvious that a multitude of zones and heat sources are envisioned, and that the geography of the city plays a key part in this. Among the key zones are:

  • Warmtenet (the red and green areas) is Dutch for heat network, which can be run off multiple heat sources – Amsterdam’s Transition Vision clearly relies heavily on these.
  • There are also the Bronnet areas (pink and purple) – a low temperature district heating scheme with ’booster’ heat pumps in each property.
  • And Duurzaam gasnet (orange areas) is a sustainable gas network and, as anybody who has been fortunate enough to visit Amsterdam might recall, is earmarked mainly for the centre and adjacent districts (plus a few smaller pockets elsewhere). This ‘sustainable gas’ could end up being biomethane or hydrogen – the country has big ambitions for both – and it will be very interesting to see which option becomes more common in the fullness of time.

The ripples of a renovation wave?

So does the future hold? First off, some mythbusting. Those following the general discourse of heat policy developments in the Netherlands, as Delta-EE has, will likely have heard many proclamations from other parties about the country going ‘all electric’. While there are some noticeable blue All Electric districts in Amsterdam’s plan, they are not the most common option and electric heating will be deployed based on where it fits best, just like all the other methods.

More importantly though, Amsterdam’s plan provides a really encouraging example to stakeholders in the heat and energy sectors more widely that, while even the thought of what to do about retrofit can cause a genuine headache, a blueprint is emerging. And more than that, progress is beginning to be made – the green dots on the map signify zones where actions are already underway.

We are beginning to see more attention be paid to the local zoning approach for decarbonising heat. Here in Britain, for example, the Association for Decentralised Energy recently published a paper advocating this strategy – which is quite different to the pathway options that have been presented at the government level in the past (e.g. it’s either ~60%+ heat pumps or ~60%+ hydrogen, with heat networks filling in the rest). The UK government is due to announce an updated Heat and Buildings Strategy before the end of 2020, and I am intrigued to find out how different it looks to the former heat strategy published in 2012.

And with the launch of the European Commission’s ‘renovation wave’ which looks to double the refurbishment rate throughout the 2020s, I hope that we come to see more and more discussion about this approach in the near future.

Delta-EE has long supported the notion of a ‘balanced transition’ – exemplified by the city of Amsterdam and the Dutch model in general – for reaching net zero; the approach which offers the lowest investment costs and highest customer acceptance. Our research continues to support this conclusion.

The importance of a local lens as the final filter

Our Gas Heating Service recently reported on the likely heating costs in 2030 for European households currently on the gas network, exploring how the type of appliance installed will influence future bills – e.g. whether they get an upgrade to an electric heat pump or if they are to be retrofitted for a supply of green hydrogen used by either a boiler, gas or hybrid heat pump, or fuel cell micro-CHP.

Based on the range of key variables – home size and thermal demand, spark spreads and the evolution of energy prices, potential product cost reductions and performance improvements, etc. – all of the above options were shown to be the lowest cost option in different segments of the stock. But on many occasions the results were incredibly close, a difference in yearly running cost on the order of a few £/€ or even less. So how do you make the decision on which option(s) to move people towards so that much needed progress can begin to be made?

I believe that a final layer of local understanding of the housing stock, the population, the geography, the resources, the economy, must be applied on top of such economic analyses to take the final decision.

Establishing the framework where this kind of decision making is not already the norm will take time, but Amsterdam and soon the other cities and regions all over the Netherlands will be studied as the blueprint for making heat green.

And check out the latest whitepaper from Delta-EE’s Head of Heat Research Lindsay Sugden for more information and lots more examples of what’s happening across Europe.

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