by Linda Bertelsen

At EU level, the heat pump industry has just started a campaign calling for a “heat pump accelerator”, the hydrogen industry already has one, and now Euroheat and Power has also published its 10-point paper about district energy.

By Anton Koller, Divisional President District Energy & Buildings and Leanheat Software Suite, Danfoss Climate Solutions

Will district energy get the same kind of attention as heat pumps and hydrogen? As a matter of fact, we have an amazing story to tell – a story that holds the key to quite a few of the energy and climate problems that Europe is struggling with right now. But district energy is still perceived by many as a way of locking in fossil fuels as the heat fed into the grid is often a “byproduct” of coal powerplants and the likes, leaving a bad aftertaste. High time to change the narrative … and, wherever possible, the type of heat we use!

Let’s have a quick look at the numbers in Europe. Heating and cooling represent half of the total final energy consumption. Roughly 80% is still based on fossil fuels, most of them imported. And unsurprisingly, most of Europe’s greenhouse gas emissions are related to energy production and consumption. Meaning that we must address heating and cooling as a top priority. How? Significantly stepping up the share of renewable energies is indispensable. 

The International Energy Agency (IEA), for example, found that at global level, the share of renewables both in electricity and in final use needs to at least double until 2030 compared to 2019. Who says more renewables, says higher need for operational flexibility and thermal storage. Can we help with district energy? You bet.

Coming back on the heat we use. Does it have to be the excess heat of coal powerplants? Absolutely not. Rather, we have the luxury to be able to use many different heat sources. Let’s take the example of cooling. There are many facilities that heavily rely on cooling, therefore systematically generating excess heat from the cooling process. I am thinking of datacenters, supermarkets, hospitals to only name a few. Today, this heat is in most of the cases “wasted”. 

But it does not have to be like that. We should use it, either on site, directly, or by feeding it into a district energy network – thereby reducing the need to generate heat. This is not only energy efficient, but even more so resource efficient! Given that the cooling process is in most cases electrically powered, and that electricity will be increasingly based on renewables, that way we will use these resources much more efficiently – allowing to achieve the required temperatures in a highly energy efficient way. And with artificial intelligence we can further optimize the process. Will this make a difference to address the energy crisis? No doubt.

So what? I guess, we should not waste our time by enviously glancing at other technologies such as heat pumps and the political attention they are now receiving. And rightly so. The challenge to decarbonize heating is massive and heat pumps are an essential part of the puzzle to solve the energy and climate crisis. 

What we should do, though, is to reposition district energy in a much more modern and proactive way. It’s not this thing from the past, powered by dirty fossil fuels. Rather, it is the solution to transition to renewable energies and use our resources much more efficiently. We also need to get much better in working with local decision makers. It’s one (important) thing to get the overarching framework right in Brussels, but it’s at least as important to make the local decision makers such as for example our mayors aware of the benefits that district energy provides to citizens.

Take the example of Sonderborg – city on Als in the southern part of Denmark – which has committed to decarbonize its energy system by 2029. Local decision makers set up “project zero”, bringing on board all relevant stakeholders in town. A plan was made back in 2007, mapping among others heat sources and heat demand. 

Meanwhile GHG emissions have already been more than halved. Today, we have a fully integrated energy system in Sonderborg which is based on three pillars: energy efficiency, renewable energies and recovery and reuse of excess heat – with district energy being a central part of the solution. Now, if that’s not highly attractive, I wonder what else is?

“It’s time to change our narrative!” was published in Hot Cool, edition no. 8/2022
It's time to change our narrative! by Anton Koller, Hot Cool no. 8, 2022
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Meet the author

Anton Koller
Divisional President District Energy & Buildings and Leanheat Software Suite, Danfoss Climate Solutions