by Linda Bertelsen
EU flag
Local heating and cooling planning is coming to every city, with over 45,000 people in Europe. It is hard to overstate how much of a game-changer this could be for district heating and Europe’s climate ambitions. The key word there is ‘could’.

By Adrian Hiel, Head of Media and Campaigns, Energy Cities

Published in Hot Cool, edition no. 4/2024 | ISSN 0904 9681 |

The obligation to develop local heating and cooling plans has been agreed upon in Brussels in a very general way, with few details about how exactly it should be done. That means that how the directive is translated into national law will enormously influence what the final plans will look like. 

Will they be concrete plans based on the technological clarity of existing, trusted technologies like heat pumps and district heating? Or will they be technologically neutral plans based on fairy tales that one day there might be enough biomethane or that green hydrogen might one day be cheap and plentiful?

Art. 25. 6 of the Recast Energy Efficiency Directive, which covers local heating and cooling planning, obliges member states to “support regional and local authorities to the utmost extent possible … including financial and technical support schemes.” It also requires member states to “ensure that heating and cooling plans are aligned with other local climate, energy, and environment planning requirements to avoid administrative burden for local and regional authorities and to encourage the effective implementation of the plans.”

That last bit is particularly key. Making plans is good. But bringing those plans to life is what really matters.

That is why Energy Cities has put together an online tracker of national heating and cooling policies to shine a light on which countries are doing well and which countries need to step up their game in the challenge of decarbonising heat. You can find the tracker at https://energy-cities.eu/local-heating-and-cooling-plan/

What should be in local heating and cooling plans?

  • An estimate, mapping, and strategy for increased energy efficiency (via low-temperature district heating readiness, high efficiency cogeneration, waste heat recovery, renewable energy in heating and energy for cooling in an area)
  • Analysis of heating and cooling appliances in buildings, including area-specific energy efficiency measures targeting worst performing buildings and vulnerable households
  • A plan to finance the implementation of policies and measures
  • A trajectory to achieve the goals of the plans in line with climate neutrality and a framework for monitoring progress.

The leaders, the learners, and the laggards

It won’t surprise readers of this magazine that only two countries, Denmark and the Netherlands, currently achieve an ‘Ideal mandate and supportive framework’. That said, we have seen substantial progress in Germany, France, Belgium, Ireland, and Luxembourg. Unfortunately, local heating and cooling are entirely absent in nearly half of EU member states’ legal frameworks.

In the Netherlands, for example, the local heating and cooling obligation has come with a good support framework–that is, the staff and finances to do good planning. But in other countries, such as Slovenia and Poland, we see a massive gap in staffing levels. Therefore, they are unable to develop plans with all the necessary components realistically.

Cooling plans have melted.

The largest red flag from our analysis of all EU member states is that cooling planning doesn’t exist anywhere. In a way, that is understandable. Cooling hasn’t been a life-or-death requirement in the same way as heating in the past. But those days are gone. Public health experts estimate that more than 61,000 people died from heat exposure during the summer of 2022.

EU member states must start from scratch to ensure citizens can access cooling in an ever-hotter world. In Denmark, the provision of heat is a public service, while cooling is relegated to a commercial activity. It is rarely covered in building codes (mandating solar shading, for example), and peak cooling can cause significant challenges for the electricity grid and lead to power outages. It’s an important example of the kind of coordination needed between spatial planning and energy systems.

Planning, planning, and planning

Another general finding is that energy planning documents (including SECAPs – Sustainable Energy and Climate Action Plans) often lack detail and spatial dimensions. It’s impossible to coordinate plans effectively without the detail necessary for coordination. In the same vein, there needs to be more coordination between different levels of government and between different sectors at a local level. 

That means municipalities need more powers in planning regulation and building codes to regulate heating supply sources effectively. It also means that cities must coordinate heating and cooling planning with things like biodiversity investments and tree planting, which can be an essential part of a cooling strategy.

Outside of municipalities, heat planning must be aligned with national climate targets, strategies, and objectives so that things like renovation subsidies are effectively targeted. There is little point in a national government subsidising a heat pump on a street where a city is planning district heating soon.

What cities need

Staff is obviously a massive need. But it’s not just heating and building engineers. To implement local heating and cooling plans, cities must hire IT, legal, HR, communications, and administrative support to allow the engineers to work effectively. To give a related example, a 2021 Energy Cities study on meeting Europe’s existing targets for building renovation estimated that 214,000 additional local staff were needed at a cost of about €16b per year.

Current funding for heating and cooling is often project-based—a fixed sum for a fixed deliverable. However, this misses the secondary staffing needs for cities, and it means that the costs of the integrated planning needs mentioned above fall solely on the shoulders of cities. If the national and regional governments want to hit their targets as cost-effectively as possible, they must share some of that burden.

Technological clarity vs. technological neutrality

Changing heating sources, especially from an individual solution to a collective solution like district heating, can significantly intervene in peoples’ homes and lives. This is fertile ground for incumbent natural gas providers to promise future solutions like biomethane or hydrogen as an easy, non-disruptive option. “The natural gas lobby is powerful and will try to convince us to tone it down using framing concepts. 

One of these framing concepts comes with the slogan ‘green gas everywhere for everything.’ But it’s easy to see through. Vienna has made it clear that it wants real change. Thus, phasing out gas means phasing out all gases in the building sector. This includes green gas, which is far too valuable to use for heating apartments,” said Jürgen Czernohorszky, Executive City Councillor for Climate, Environment, Democracy, and Personnel at the City of Vienna.

It seems clear that the goal for some legacy natural gas providers is delay—allowing them to extract maximum value from their existing assets (the local gas grid) for the maximum amount of time. Unfortunately, time is not something we have in abundance, and having the technological clarity to rule out false solutions like biomethane and hydrogen domestic heating is a crucial first step.

Need an Open Door for Open Data

Good planning needs good data. Unfortunately, centralised access to energy-related geodata through databases and platforms is rarely available. This must be addressed at the national level, with an obligation for energy utilities and network operators to publish their data. 

The flip side of consumption data is access to building-related data (age, surface area, energy performance) to see where targeted interventions with public money can be made in private building stock for larger system-level benefits. Even where some of this data does exist and can be accessed by local authorities, it is rarely sufficiently detailed, accurate, and updated to allow the complex modeling and data treatment necessary for exceptional heating and cooling planning.

What else needs to be done locally and nationally?

There should be a legal mandate to force utilities to comply with local heating and cooling plans. While cities can often regulate district heating systems, the plans are frequently not reflected in gas infrastructure planning. Similarly, all legal obligations to connect buildings to natural gas networks must end. And again, cities should be able to quickly rule out some heating technologies from the building stock to achieve their climate goals.

Nationally, the level of technical support is vital – especially for smaller cities. One national agency or ministry should be responsible for coordinating support for local authorities and launching a national program involving academic and scientific experts, local authorities, energy suppliers and distribution system operators, social housing, industries, and the building sector. This program should propose guidelines and tools and update them with new knowledge and lessons learned over the years.

This technical support (both online and in-person) should include step-by-step guidance, calculation methodologies, tools, costs, etc., as well as training, peer-to-peer exchanges, working groups, and expertise. Amongst that expertise should be a list of trustworthy consulting companies that can support local authorities.

What did the EU ever do for us?

The EU’s green deal includes many complementary measures to local heating and cooling plans that also need to be considered. National governments must plan to phase out fossil fuel boilers by 2040 (leaving the door open for biomethane and hydrogen boilers). Minimum energy performance standards were introduced, which are supposed to target the worst-performing buildings first. 

There is the mandatory use of waste heat from data centres, an installation level cost-benefit analysis for other waste heat producers, and a non-binding target to increase the share of energy from renewable sources and waste heat in district heating by 2.2 %/year from 2021 to 2030.

So, is this the moment we kick out fossil fuels?

This is still an open question. Because so many of the challenges remain in the hands of national EU governments, it seems clear that different countries will move at different speeds. But there is so much that can be learned from the front-running countries to transform the laggards into leaders themselves.

For further information, please contact: Adrian Hiel, adrian.hiel@energy-cities.eu

“New European legislation on local heating and cooling plans: Is this the moment we kick out fossil fuels?” was published in Hot Cool, edition no. 4/2024. You can download the article here:
New European legislation on local heating and cooling plans - Is this the moment we kick out fossil fuels, by Adria Hiel, Hot Cool author

meet the author

Adrian Hiel
Head of Media and Campaigns, Energy Cities