by Linda Bertelsen

Yet another COP with the intention to stop fossil fuels took place in 2023. International institutions like the UN and the EU should try to break down legal and institutional barriers.

By Anders Dyrelund, Senior Market Manager, Ramboll

The message from the UN Sustainable Development Goals is clear: affordable, clean, low-carbon energy for the growing population. Recently, resiliency has been added to the list of energy policy objectives. Therefore, the history of the green transition in Denmark, starting with the oil crisis in 1973, is a good showcase, in brief:

  • Cost-effectiveness for society, including the cost of CO2 is the key to sustainable solutions.
  • Therefore, break down barriers between sectors, institutions, and all stakeholders.
  • Ensure that competent ministries regulate to the benefit of society.
  • DH has eliminated thermal losses from power generation and waste incineration.
  • Transition from oil to coal and gas and further to biomass and wind
  • Cost-effective zoning of the district heating (DH) and close to 100% connection.
  • DH integrates the fluctuating renewable energy as a virtual battery.

In 1976, the Danish Electricity Supply Act gave the Ministry the power to approve power plants. In 1979, the Danish Heat Supply Act gave municipalities the obligation to plan for cost-effective extension of DH to utilize surplus heat from waste and power generation, and the power generation shifted from oil to coal and natural gas.

The policy was enforced by combining incentives and regulation. A large tax on fossil fuels and electricity stimulated energy savings in buildings and the extension of DH. The building code enforced more insulation and low-temperature heating.

The option of obligatory connection to DH and a ban on electric heating in new buildings stimulated efficiency and cost-effectiveness. The policymakers understood that DH is a natural monopoly and the key to meeting the objectives, e.g., that the marginal efficiency of DH from CHP is more than 200%, whereas it is only 30% for electric heating.

Around the year 2000, this potential was utilized, and Denmark started the second phase of the journey towards a fossil-free society in 2050. Sustainable biomass replaced fossil fuels in large power plants and many DH systems. Biomass, which else would be wasted, was used in a clean and efficient way for heat and power generation with flue gas condensation. The market for district cooling started, and the DH market share increased. However, domestic natural gas was still a priority.

Around 2020, Denmark started the third phase of the journey, replacing the remaining fossil fuels with wind and solar. In this phase, DH plays an even more important role, being the key technology for replacing gas for heating and for integrating the fluctuating renewable energy.

he DH, acting as a virtual battery, is already a reality stabilizing the power grid and reducing curtailment of wind turbines. The core of the gas grid will remain and distribute biogas for industries and back-up for wind in symbiosis with DH. The first projects for carbon capture from biomass are in the pipeline, followed by electrolysis and e-fuel factories for decarbonizing transportation.

There will be a surplus of waste heat from all these processes, from cooling and from data centers and industries. The challenge will be to allocate these huge waste heat resources in the most cost-effective way for society. Most industrialized countries are now in the process of implementing energy policy objectives in line with the Danish policy. EU member states are, e.g., obliged to implement a package of EU directives.

The buildings shall, according to the building directive, offer good thermal comfort, and their carbon footprint shall be reduced to almost zero in a cost-effective way, taking into account that renewable and efficient energy can be transferred to buildings via DH and DC. Moreover, member states and local communities are requested to plan for how DH and DC can utilize the many efficient and renewable sources for heating and cooling.

This is a challenge for states that are dependent on fossil fuels like Denmark was in 1973, but the Danish Journey can inspire. The EU directives have been inspired by the Danish transition, and some of the good Danish showcases have been presented in EU JRC (Joint Research Centre) publications and in Hot|Cool.

The showcases demonstrate the importance of technical and institutional efficiency and how it has developed in the Danish journey, not least the longer lifetime of the network, lower heat losses, and digital communication with consumers, as well as local democratic ownership being the key to efficient stakeholder engagement and co-operation to plan and implement the most cost-effective solutions for the society.

Energy efficiency first – stop wasting resources.

This issue of Hot|Cool focuses on how DH is vital for the efficiency and integration of fluctuating renewable energy.
A closer look at the cases will show that society still faces severe barriers against a cost-effective transition meeting the Sustainable Development Goals, even in Denmark, such as wrong tax incentives, focus on CO2 instead of cost-effectiveness, national CO2 reduction instead of global reduction, building level reduction instead of national level reduction, etc. Therefore, international institutions like the UN and the EU should try to break down such legal and institutional barriers.

CO2 does not recognize borders.

“CO2 does not recognize borders” was published in Hot Cool, edition no. 1/2024. You can download the article here:
CO2 does not recognize borders HotCool column, edition no 2 2024

Meet the author

Anders Dyrelund
Senior Market Manager, Ramboll