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SUSTAINABLE DISTRICT HEATING: a local versus (inter)national dilemma?

by Linda Bertelsen
scientist corner

In France, district heating systems are still struggling to develop and reach ambitious growth objectives. Why is there such a gap between ambitions and realities despite many efforts being put into developing district heating systems? Maybe due to the non-alignment between national policymakers and local project developers.

By Johanna Ayrault, PhD in Management Science, MSc in Executive Engineering

Published in Hot Cool, edition no. 6/2023 | ISSN 0904 9681 |

Why is the article interesting? Who will benefit from reading it? What is the article about?

The article points out recommendations to foster the development of district heating systems in countries struggling to reach their growth ambitions. The article mainly targets policymakers and other national organizations supporting the development of district heating. It presents the gap between the policy vision of district heating and project development, offering ideas on how to close it.

If international organizations recognize that district heating (DH) systems are a great lever for the energy transition, their development still does not meet expectations. On the one hand, national and international public policies claim to support the development of more sustainable DH systems. On the other hand, the coverage of sustainable DH remains low.

Why is there such a gap between the strategy and its operationalization? One answer (among many others) I want to put forward is the non-alignment of temporalities and values between policymakers and operational project managers. I will take the example of France, where DH only represents about 5% of the residential heat demand despite being a building block of the national ecological transition strategy. This work was conducted during a CIFRE Ph.D. in France from 2019 to 2022.

1. National policymakers, a technocratic approach to district heating

As France has growth objectives for DH (see Box 1), several public policies, instruments, and institutions should support its development. One of the main levers for this development is the ADEME – the national expertise center for the ecological transition – and, more precisely, the Heat Funds. Heat Funds are subsidies given to public authorities developing “sustainable district heating” to ensure its competitiveness compared to natural gas. Heat Funds are recognized as a great lever for the development of DH, yet France struggles to reach its objectives.

Box 1: French growth objectives on district heating

The 2015 law on the energy transition for green development sets up the objective of multiplying by five the amount of renewable heat and cold delivered by DH and cooling systems between 2012 and 2030. This objective was reasserted in the national energy roadmap 2020 and should be based on biomass (double used between 2019 and 2023), geothermal energy (fourfold increase), and waste heat. This mix would be complemented by biogas and thermal solar panels.

1.1. An engineering approach to district heating

When screening the indicators evaluating the sustainability of DH, it is striking how technical they are. Sustainability means 50% or more of renewable and recovered heat. You may wonder which production means fall into this category? There is a comprehensive list of what is considered renewable heat. And here is where the first issue arises: this list was issued in 2009 and has been regularly updated. At every update, new specifications on what is considered a « sustainable heat source » were added (Figure 1 ).

Scientist corner figure 1

Figure 1 Evolution of the Heat Funds 2009-2022

This figure shows the main changes in the Heat Funds (French subsidies for sustainable heat production) specifications throughout the years. Each year, new production means are added to the list, and new criteria are set up to assess the sustainability of the production means.

However, this list is never comprehensive, always one step behind the market state, and not entirely aligned with local interests.

1.2. The case of recovered heat

There are no specifications on what can be considered “recovered” heat. Due to this lack of clarity, it is hard for project developers to engage in the development of such DH systems: they have few supporting tools or institutions to help them, and they have no insurance that the system they set up will be considered as “sustainable” and benefit from subsidies.
“There was a challenge to prove that mine gas was indeed waste heat for the ADEME national office or the ministries, even if it is stated by law that it is indeed waste heat” (regional coordinator of the Heat Funds, own translation)

1.3. Keeping up with the innovations

Moreover, it takes time for new technology to be added to the list; in the meantime, it benefits from very little development. Low-temperature DH and cooling systems were only added in 2019 to the list, meaning that before that year, they could not benefit from the Heat Funds subsidies as they were not considered “sustainable.” It is always possible for innovative projects to get subsidies, but it requires more commitment and awareness from the project developers.

1.4. Biomass, a controversial sustainable production means

Finally, when it comes to the alignment with local interests, the case of biomass is interesting. The specifications on what is considered sustainable biomass are constantly evolving, but – despite years of discussions on the subject – there is no mandatory wood certification (concerning forest management or the local origin of the wood). When talking to local authorities or representatives, their view on biomass sustainability is very much linked to the local origin of biomass and biased by the fear of deforestation. Thus, even in forestry regions, the potential of wood energy is not reached, hampering the reaching of the national objectives.

2. Local project developers, a pragmatic approach to district heating systems

In opposition to the engineering approach of DH bore by the policymakers, local actors have developed a pragmatic approach to these systems as key infrastructures to structure a local transition. When I use the term “project developers,” I refer here to local authorities responsible for the development of DH, not to the private companies operating the systems.

2.1. District heating as a lever for local action, an ecosystemic approach

More and more metropolis and municipalities are engaging in a local transition. The main driver of this transition is to ensure citizens a better, cleaner future. To do so, they can use various tools: energy infrastructures, local policies, etc. DH is starting to be viewed as a significant lever for local action because of its flexibility and overreaching impact. When discussing the priorities of local project developers around DH, I was struck by the gap between their vision and the national one. If they value the technical optimization of the system, it is only a base for a more ecosystemic impact.

2.2. A real utopia around district heating

For local project developers, DH should participate in the attractivity of the city, the decarbonization of its energy, and the improvement of the air. It should also consider water management, in collaboration with other utilities, and the reuse of waste heat. It should create synergies with already settled industries and with social housing. It should help structure and secure new employment sectors and have a positive societal impact on the municipality. Overall, it should become a structuring actor of urban development, more than an invisible energy provider. Local public authorities want to investigate innovative solutions and partnerships to make this vision real. However, they do not necessarily feel supported to build this expertise by existing national public policies. Even if formalized in local plans, these objectives struggle to get quantified and gain recognition outside the municipality perimeter.

3. The intricate linking between national and local visions

Here is a recapitulative table to clearly show the tensions between the policymakers’ vision and the local one (Table 1).
National policymakers, a technocratic approach to district heating Sustainable district heating, a locally anchored project
Main focus Technical focus (visible through the indicators for subsidies) Focus on the local impact (financial, societal, environmental, social)
Perimeter of thinking Dominant silo thinking – political timeframe Attempts at long-term ecosystem thinking

Scientist corner - table 1

Table 1 Two worlds in tension. This table summarizes the main differences between the national policymakers’ approach to district heating and the local one. The national one has a technical and political base, whereas the local one strives to integrate district heating into a holistic transition.

This deformed mirror image between these two visions is embodied through the difficulties of translating national planning at local levels.

In 2014, the Cerema tried to sum up the ambitions of every region (through the figures stated in their regional planning for climate, air, and energy), and it was not even a tenth of the national objectives. […] There is no real link between each level.”
(employee of a Cerema regional office, own translation)

This difficulty is intensified by the lack of clear interlocutor focusing solely on DH development at every administrative level (municipalities, regions, nation).

Box 2: Other factors impeding the growth.

Of course, this gap between the visions of national policymakers and the one of local project developers does not explain the difficult development of DH systems. Among other factors, the French cultural and historical context, favoring the emergence of national electrical and natural gas networks throughout the country, makes investing in new network development difficult. The choice of nuclear energy supported by public policies also encourages the emergence of all-electric housings.
Above these national considerations, the EU regulations on the energy market or its competitiveness law can sometimes prevent cross-sector planning and operations.

4. What now?

Is this gap inevitable? Moving away from the current system will take time and effort, as it is strongly embedded in institutions and regulations (see Box 2). However, I claim that two significantly linked steps could be taken.

4.1. Create representatives for district heating.

One issue making the dialogue difficult is that DH is not well-represented. Its status remains unclear compared to the “big brothers” like electricity or natural gas. Acknowledging the existence of DH as a technical and political object per se could help bring back coherence both at the energy sector and cross-sector levels. It will also create the roots for facilitating interaction between project developers and policymakers.

4.2. Constructing expertise to mediate between the two worlds.

To help operationalize the energy roadmaps, there is a lack of tools facilitating the project developments and adapting to the new context of sustainability. Mediation tools translating regulations into actionable actions and instruments would also be required. They go hand in hand with the construction of expertise: the French government wants to increase the percentage of geothermal energy and waste heat into DH. But local project developers do not necessarily know the geothermal potential, the human resources to develop contracts with industrials, etc.
The expertise around sustainable DH is still under construction, and the actors do not yet benefit from standardized tools supporting the development of innovative systems. I call for more efforts on standardized contracts adapted to innovative settings, developing indicators and reporting systems considering local attractivity and local impact, formalized methods for cocreating DH with local actors, knowledge development within the local authorities on shallow geothermal energy, etc.

For further information please contact: Johanna Ayrault, johanna.ayrault@minesparis.psl.eu

Johanna Ayrault, PhD

After completing a Ph.D. in 2022 on collaborative governance for sustainable DH, I have continued investigating this fascinating object. I now work as a researcher for the CGS (Mines Paris-PSL) and the Institute for Urban Management and Governance (WU Wien). I would like to understand better how to support collaborative expertise building to help the development of sustainable DH and cooling systems.

What makes this subject exciting to you?

I discovered DH when starting my Ph.D. in 2019, and I really fell for it. People working in the sector are passionate, and it is wonderful to learn from them. I find it fascinating as it has a lot of potential for the energy transition, not only on a technical or environmental level but also on a societal one. DH calls for collaboration, synergies, and a democratic approach to the ecological transition. It is also a challenging subject because it is not that much represented or acknowledged. But that makes it exciting because a lot is still to be built and the potential is big!

What will your findings do for DH?

I hope that my research will help build this expertise I’m talking about in this article: not only a technical one but an ecosystemic one. The ideal would be to develop sustainable DH methods based on different instruments (co-creation workshops, formalized partnerships, governance, etc.). However, I want to start by bringing more awareness to DH and participating in creating this “culture of district heating” in Europe. I hope my findings will push for more representative of DH and national experts of DH, which is a prerequisite for building collaborative expertise.

“Sustainable district heating: A local vs. (international dilemma?” was published in Hot Cool, edition no. 6/2023. You can download the article here:
Scientist corner - A local vs. (inter)national dilemma?