But who should start and how? Policymaker or end-user?

by Linda Bertelsen
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More than a century ago, all policymakers realized that a modern city needs an infrastructure for the environment, in fact, two, one for water and one for wastewater.

By Anders Dyrelund, Frederik Palshøj Bigum and Emil Reinhold Kristensen, Ramboll

At that time, thermal comfort, air pollution, security of supply, nor climate gasses were not the priority.

Today modern societies set high standards, not only for affordable energy but also for thermal comfort, clean air, and independency of imported fuels, and they care to prevent climate change.

Do we have solutions that cost-effectively solve all in one?

Yes, we have had it for decades, in particular in Denmark. Until recently, this must have been a secret for many policymakers, as we have states that waste huge amounts of energy and are dependent on imported energy.

All readers of this magazine know that the secret solution is to establish underground networks for district heating and cooling as part of the urban infrastructure. We have the technology and the methodologies for planning and design. It is just a matter of information and management at a national and local level.

But how to begin? “Is it the hen or the egg?” Is it at the national or the local level? We think both.

In Denmark, district heating started 50 to 100 years ago in most local communities, organized by municipal-owned utilities in cities and consumer cooperatives in smaller communities. Most remaining communities followed shortly after 1979, encouraged by the strong national energy policy and the Heat Supply Act.

The Parliament

Our recommendation to policymakers at the national level is to create a legal framework to implement the national energy policy, which should focus on cost-effective, resilient, and environmentally friendly energy services:

  • Establish cooperation between ministries in accordance with the EU directive for strategic environmental assessment to ensure that all ministries remove barriers against cost-effective urban energy infrastructure.
  • Ensure that power plants, waste incineration plants, data centers, electrolyzers, and other significant sources of waste heat can or shall be located near cities to facilitate the use of these resources in the interest of society.
  • Use taxation to encourage all end-users to act in a way, which is of interest to the society, e.g., tax on fossil fuels and tax on ton waste, and let the ministry of energy design the taxes on fuels, waste and electricity at fluctuating prices to ensure that it is administrated in accordance with the purpose.
  • Give the local municipal authorities the responsibility for planning the urban energy infrastructure, as they are the planning authority for other urban infrastructure, and set down rules to facilitate that this planning is following the interest of the society at the municipal level, crossing municipal borders and at a national level and not least, that the plans can be enforced.
  • Allow the municipalities to enforce an obligation to connect rule in areas where district heating and cooling is proven to be the most socioeconomic solution. This helps secure feasible projects and lower the cost for society. It also gives citizens a clear direction for the most cost-efficient and sustainable solution. 
  • Use the building code to ensure that new buildings meet sufficient thermal comfort standards and HVAC systems for low-temperature heating and high-temperature cooling cost-effectively. And to ensure that building owners are encouraged to connect to district heating and/or cooling if this infrastructure is available, being the most cost-effective solution. Let the energy planners in the Ministry of Energy be responsible for the building regulation regarding energy supply.
  • Develop indicators that reflect the cost of economic, environmental, and social sustainability and resilient energy. The simple energy and average climate gas emission statistics do not reflect these essential objectives and may confuse building owners.

City councils

Our recommendation to city councils is to integrate the district heating and cooling infrastructure in the urban planning as this network infrastructure is a strong natural monopoly, which should be owned and planned in a way that is to the benefit of all building owners in the city:

  • Delegate the responsibility for energy to the standing committee for energy and environment to ensure cost-effective, secure, low carbon, and environmentally friendly thermal services to all consumers following the national energy policy.
  • Let the public utility, managed by this committee, establish a branch for heating and cooling infrastructure in the city, parallel to similar services for water and wastewater, roads and traffic, etc., to develop this service to the benefit of the energy consumers and to minimize costs of these services for all consumers.
  • Transparently operate the utility and let consumers be represented on the board.
  • Regular update of business plan with a focus on the company’s aim, on the present situation, and on opportunities for meeting the objectives even better.
  • Invite significant infrastructure owners for energy and environment and all industries that can use or produce energy in an open planning process with all relevant data available, from the first screening to final feasibility studies and agreements to be approved by the board of utilities and the city council.
  • Use stakeholder analysis to identify the best solution for all and alternatives for sharing the responsibility and benefit/risk.
  • Ensure that all public buildings, social housing, etc., that are publicly funded are connected to the district heating and cooling grids if available.

Campus owners

Our recommendations to public and private industrial campus owners are:

  • Take an active part as a stakeholder in the city energy planning process.
  • Regular update of business plan for the campus energy to provide sufficient resilient environmentally friendly energy services like electricity, process energy, and thermal comfort, in the most cost-effective way, including the cost of building envelope, HVAC systems, networks, storage facilities, and production.
  • Consider the interaction with the energy infrastructure in the city around the campus in the stakeholder analysis and for implementing projects of common interest.
  • Share experience and be a role model for individual building owners in other city districts by demonstrating how you develop the least-cost solutions for all buildings in a district.


Our recommendation to developers is:

  • Developers can, like campus owners, identify the most cost-effective and sustainable solution for the urban development area as a whole, considering the opportunities for taking part in the urban infrastructure.
  • Think about the end-users of the buildings; the cheapest solution today will most likely not be the most inexpensive solution over time.
  • In most cases, district heating and/or district cooling will be the most cost-effective solution to meeting the objectives.
  • If there is not yet any energy infrastructure in the city, the new development will most likely be an opportunity to develop it in the rest of the urban area.
  • In case there is no obligation for new buildings to connect, the developer has the opportunity to ensure that all buildings will be connected and thereby create more value for the development.

Building owners

Our recommendation to building owners is:

  • Join the planned urban infrastructure for energy and stop focusing only on one’s own building.
  • If there is not yet a supplier of district heating and cooling, the consumer could engage with other consumers and create a local energy community in which consumers in the local community look for energy solutions of common interest. It could be organized in associations or cooperatives.

Further reading

The EU/JRC report on integrating renewable and waste heat and cold sources
includes another eight good cases, among them two from Denmark. Despite several institutional and legal barriers, the Public utility Taarnby Forsyning established a smart, cost-effective district cooling system. The local community in the small town of Jægerspris established a district heating system to utilize surplus heat from CHP and solar heating and is now transitioning to using fluctuating wind energy.

The EU/JRC report on efficient district heating and cooling
from 2016 includes eight good cases, among them two from Denmark. Twenty local communities in Greater Copenhagen established an integrated district heating system to harvest the surplus heat from CHP and waste to the benefit of all consumers. The consumer-owned district heating company in the small town of Gram has established large-scale solar water heating and seasonal heat storage combined with CHP, heat pumps, and electric boilers. The operation responds to electricity prices like an electric battery, “a virtual battery.”

The case on sustainable urban development in The Carlsberg City
describes how the developer has implemented the most sustainable solution for heating and cooling and ensured its implementation, making it obligatory for all buildings to connect to district heating and district cooling (for those with active cooling demand). This is to ensure the most sustainable solution and reduce the negative environmental impact of energy-producing appliances in the buildings.

The IEA Annex73 project on the planning of resilient energy in local communities includes guidelines, case studies, and pilot projects  includes a guideline and many case studies to inspire and support energy planners at the national and local levels.

For further information please contact: Anders Dyrelund, ad@ramboll.com

“District Heating and Cooling is a natural part of the urban infrastructure in modern cities” was published in Hot Cool, edition no. 3/2022. Download and print the article here.
District heating and cooling is a natural part of the urban infrastructure in modern cities, article in Hot Cool international magazine, no. 3, 2022

Meet the authors

Anders Dyrelund
Senior Market Manager at Ramboll Energy
Frederik Palshøj Bigum
Project Manager
Emil Reinhold Kristensen
Energy Planner at Rambøll