Warmer together: Renewable heating & cooling for energy communities
Authors: Chiara Lazzari, Riccardo Battisti, both Senior Project Managers at Ambiente Italia, Milan/Italy and coordinators of the ConnectHeat project
Heating & cooling in the energy transition
In Europe, heating and cooling are responsible for more than 50% of energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions and, although the decarbonisation of heating and cooling is underway, progress has been slow and about 75% of the energy consumption is still produced with fossil fuels.
The decarbonisation of the heating and cooling sector is therefore essential in the energy transition to reach Europe’s ambitious 2050 target on carbon neutrality.
Thanks to the exploitation of thermal renewables (solar thermal, biomass, geothermal and waste heat), sustainable and resilient district heating networks are one of the most effective intervention options also from the point of view of economic viability.
Renewable energy communities (RECs): What is there for heating & cooling?
Though the RED II EU Directive does not exclude for RECs any form of energy, one of the main gaps in its transposition at the national levels concerns heating and most of the current RECs examples, therefore, have been developed considering only electricity.
There are already several ongoing experiences on renewable heat supply with direct involvement of local communities, however, regulations are clearly lagging behind making their successful implementation and roll-out difficult.
As such, it is necessary to adapt and update the strategic and regulatory reference framework for RECs for promoting and duly valorising the contribution of renewable heat, while appropriately considering the undeniable elements of difference with the electricity sector.
In October 2022 the European LIFE ConnectHeat project (https://connectheat.ambienteitalia.it/) started, with the aim of promoting the diffusion of renewable heat in energy communities through training activities, collection and analysis of good practices, dialogue with stakeholders and development of 7 pilot cases in different EU countries.
Concrete proposals for fostering heating & cooling communities
First of all, there should be an explicit inclusion of heat supply in the regulation of RECs and the study of an ad hoc model to allow, if feasible, virtual heat sharing between the members of a REC and evaluation of a possible incentive on the amount of heat shared. This is also connected to the presence of heating prosumers in the network.
A further option could be to plan an additional incentive for ‘electric RECs’ which decide to also include heat supply and/or to foresee economic support for using renewables in heating networks.
Another aspect concerns the reduction of risks associated with the implementation of the district heating infrastructure by providing a revolving fund, a price guarantee mechanism or similar financial instruments.
In parallel, forms of direct financial participation, such as the establishment of cooperatives for managing the district heating network or crowdfunding, should be duly promoted and potential developers of a heating community should be given adequate technical and organisational support.
Furthermore, public administrations and local governments should implement their key role, especially regarding spatial planning and energy modelling, as well as territorial animation and involvement of local communities through communication and awareness-raising activities.
Finally, following a bottom-up approach, good practices on successful experiences of community district heating should be collected, analysed and promoted.