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Smart Cities Marketplace
07 May 2024

Heating without Burning: how Cities Can Accelerate the Heat Transition away from Fossil Fuels

roof with smoking chimney with sunset in the backdrop

Phasing out fossil fuels is vital for building the resilient, climate-neutral and just future laid out by the Green Deal. Heating, responsible for over half of Europe’s energy usage, predominantly relies on fossil fuels. We can only create a massive shift away from fossil-based heating with the help of cities. As orchestrators of change, they have the power to reduce heating emissions on a large scale, through proactive planning and by adopting collective solutions like decarbonised district heating.

Cities as orchestrators of change

The recent energy crisis has underlined the urgency to transition away from fossil fuels, making energy security a top priority. While EU emergency measures provided short-term relief, long-term strategies are essential. REPowerEU reinforced the European Green Deal’s ambition to shift towards sustainable energy sources.

Cities, responsible for a significant portion of Green Deal implementation, are vital in transforming sectors like heating. Presently, 72% of building heating in Europe comes from fossil fuels. Achieving a large-scale shift in the heating sector demands planning, coordination and collective approach, all driven at the local level.

Planning the heat transition

First and foremost, through heat planning, local governments can profoundly reimagine the way we heat our cities. That’s why the EU’s Recast Energy Efficiency Directive (EED) includes an obligation for Member States to ensure that regional and local authorities above 45,000 inhabitants prepare heating and cooling plans (article 25(6)).   

Such plans help local authorities develop a comprehensive understanding of the heating supply and demand dynamics within their territories, enabling them to create clear, localised, and effective strategies to decarbonise heat supply and decrease demand.

In Munich, for example, the heating sector is responsible for 40% of greenhouse gas emission, making it a top priority in their journey towards climate neutrality. As a first step to heat decarbonisation, they completed an extensive mapping of their heat demand, sources and potential. This exercise involved a wide range of stakeholders such as the local energy provider, various municipal departments and space planning entities, to collect the necessary data.

Embracing a collective approach to heating

Heat planning is especially crucial for cities to identify areas to concentrate efforts and expand or develop sustainable district heating networks, for accelerated decarbonisation.

For instance, Munich’s mapping exercise revealed that currently, 35% of Munich’s heating system is district heating and 62% fueled by oil and gas. Their vision for 2045: expanding district heating to 65%, extending existing networks, connecting more buildings and developing networks in new areas, especially densely populated ones. In parallel, the decarbonisation of district heating will unfold. The city will increase its share of geothermal energy, supported by heat pumps, with some hydrogen (for peak demands), waste and biogas.

Empowering cities’ heat transition

Ambitious plans like Munich’s tell us one thing: if we empower cities to change their heat and expand collective solutions, the impact can be huge. While cities can really make a difference in phasing out fossil fuels from their heating systems, they need the support of member states.

Heat planning is an intense exercise that most cities are not ready for. A recently published EU tracker, which assesses the state of play of local heating and cooling planning across EU Member States, unfortunately shows that most countries lack appropriate regulatory and support frameworks for municipalities to develop plans.

In an upcoming campaign dedicated to heat, the Covenant of Mayors – Europe will spotlight cities’ game-changing role in the heat transition. Launching at EUSEW 2024, the campaign will raise awareness and empower local authorities to transition away from fossil fuels, in line with the EU’s strategies to phase out gas. Stay tuned.

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