Heat planning: Baden-Wurttemberg takes the bull by the horns

10 February 2021

Photo credits : Roman Kraft

The largest share of energy consumption in European cities is used for heating and cooling. This means that if cities want to hold to their ambition of becoming climate neutral by 2050, they urgently need to start planning how to phase out fossil fuels in the heating and cooling sector now.

In 2019, all parties of the Dutch Climate Agreement decided that cities in the Netherlands should design heat plans by 2021 to phase-out natural gas. Now the Länder of Baden-Württemberg in Germany seems to have followed the same example. The German region recently required its 103 cities of more than 20 000 inhabitants to develop a vision for their CO2-neutral heat supply 2050, both for residential buildings and for the industry. This is a news that we can only salute. Heating and cooling planning is a competency that cities urgently need to develop in order to phase out fossil fuels, but all too often, they are unfit for this. They lack data, financial means and capacity to clearly identify, analyse and map resources and solutions to make energy demand more efficient on the one hand, and to meet the demand with efficient, cost effective and greener energy sources on the other hand.

Enhancing cities’ technical and financial capacities

A key aspect of the planning is access to data. Cities need to have access to heat consumption data to have a better understanding of which neighbourhoods are suitable for district heating, heat pumps or biomass for example. Baden-Württemberg’s new regulation is interesting in this respect, as it specifically requires utilities and chimney sweeps to share their data with cities. In addition, it clearly specifies that cities have the right to use available data within the administration anyhow. This is crucial to avoid the restrictions which sometimes prevent different departments of the same city to share data.

We expect that the obligation to craft the first municipal heat plans will boost district heating systems in the South-West of Germany. This experience can then be used as a role model for other regions or states

Dr. Volker Kienzlen, KEA climate protection and energy agency Baden-Württemberg

The second obstacle to an efficient heating and cooling transition for cities is the lack of technical and financial means. Cities need to receive support from the relevant authorities at regional, national and EU-level. The climate protection law that was passed in Baden-Württemberg entitles all cities to receive financial support from the Region to cover the costs of this compulsory municipal planning process. This is a step in the right direction to reinforce human capacities. It is worth noting that heat planning is not only a “technical exercise”, it also requires engagement with stakeholders and citizens, as well as design of new legislative and financial instruments. These activities can only be driven by local authorities.  With regard to this, Baden-Württemberg’s Regional Climate and Energy Agency has published a heat mapping guide, with several technical tools recommendations, such as the toolbox developed by the EU-funded Hotmaps project.

Looking beyond the hydrogen hype

Finally, it is argued by many that hydrogen will be the “miracle solution” to decarbonising heating and cooling. It is not. Or rather, its direct use for heating on a large scale is problematic as it comes with many uncertainties linked to the scalability, costs of its production and inefficiencies. Vienna, one of the city partners of the Decarb City Pipes 2050 project , is committed to achieving climate neutrality by 2040, and clearly stated in its new coalition’s political agreement that green gases should be spared to replace natural gas as a last resort (i.e. for high-temperature needs, and not for residential heating). We should favour existing proven technologies (thermal insulation, heat pumps, district heating) and available resources (solar and geothermal energy, ambient heat, waste heat). Heat strategies don’t have to be perfect straight away. They can (and should) be improved in time, but given the long life-cycles of the grid infrastructures involved, there is an urgency to start the planning of the transition to fossil-free districts in our cities as soon as possible.