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Decarbonised Heating and Cooling: Don’t forget the customer

Decarbonised Heating and Cooling: Don’t forget the customer Image from Decarb Heat

Slowly, but very surely, the EU is getting us used to the idea of a fully decarbonised heating and cooling sector across Europe. It’s a bold and necessary objective which has profound implications for companies right across the energy sector. 

But is the European Commission going about it the right way?  

One of the many achievements of the EU has been its strong global leadership on the challenge of addressing global climate change. Without its actions, we would be much further behind than we are in implementing solutions.  A secret of its successes is its strategy: patience and persistence.  The Commission has a long and successful track record of nudging, prodding, coaxing and encouraging the Member States to recognise energy sector challenges and then act to address them. Its speed of movement might be glacial, but having set a bold objective, it is relentless in moving towards it. Millimetre by steady millimetre.

A few days ago, I joined a speaker panel at the Decarb Heat meeting in Brussels, co-hosted by the European Commission and the coalition of organisations that is committed to supporting the goal of a 100% carbon emission-free heating & cooling sector in Europe by 2050.  The meeting represented an early, tiny but important step in the long journey.

I came away with very conflicting impressions. 

On the plus side, I was impressed by the scale of the ambition, the quality of some of the research and data behind it, and the emphasis on the diversity of solutions that will be needed to bring decarbonisation about – including energy efficiency, electrification of heat, low carbon gas, heat networks etc. This is consistent with Delta-ee’s long-standing view, recently articulated to subscribers to our Electrification of Heat Service, that heat decarbonisation will require a balanced approach with multiple solutions and increasing energy use flexibility.

But I also felt there was something really important that was largely missing from the thinking and the debate – the needs, wishes and concerns of the energy consumer. 

As far as I could tell, I was the single private sector representative among the various speakers and panellists for the day.  One of the points I made – one which we at Delta-ee believe to be of central importance in enabling the transition to low carbon heat – is not to forget to take account of the end user.  This reality is that the transition will likely have significant cost and convenience implications for a great many end users, a point which was otherwise generally overlooked at the meeting. For example, in the residential sector especially, replacing heating systems fuelled by one energy source with that fuelled by another can present a significant practical challenge. Indeed, these are probably among the reasons why legislators have found the heating sector such a difficult area to address. 

Beyond that, there was little recognition at the event of the need to account for end user convenience, acceptance and willingness to pay.  Having scanned the (393 page) report presenting the decarbonisation strategy (A Clean Planet for All), the analysis that reflects this challenge looks pretty thin. The focus so far appears to be more on supply side and technical considerations, and not yet enough on demand side, cost and customer challenges. 

There is still time to recognise and address this challenge, but not much – as my Delta-ee colleague Lukas Bergmann says, ‘We are just two boiler replacements away from 2050’.

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