Strategic Energy Technologies Information System

Federica Sabbati talking to SETIS


What are the most pressing actions that need to be taken to create an efficient and decarbonised European market for heating and cooling?

The most pressing action is to modernise the stock of inefficient heaters which are currently installed in EU homes.

Heating and cooling today account for half of the EU’s energy consumption, but a large part of this energy is wasted because 65% of the installed stock of heaters is old and inefficient. In addition, according to the recent European Commission Strategy for Heating and Cooling1, both individual heating and district heating in Europe are largely based on fossil fuels. This means that the priority of a heating strategy should be to accelerate the replacement of the 80 million central space heaters with efficient and renewable heating technologies and to decarbonise district heating.

The heating industry has an important role in the modernisation process: replacing a domestic heating system with state-of-the-art available technology will provide an energy efficiency gain of a minimum of 25% compared to current levels. And there are many smart, efficient and renewable heating technologies available. How can we bring them into our homes?

The energy label, introduced only five months ago on heating appliances, can help: by increasing consumer awareness it can motivate them to replace their old appliances with more efficient ones. This, however, will only happen if the energy label promotes the best technologies, rather than downgrading them in the eyes of consumers as explained later.

How large a contribution does renewable heating currently make to Europe’s heat supply, and what potential exists to increase this contribution.

Today renewable heating in Europe is still marginally deployed.

According to the European Commission, renewables accounted for 18% of primary energy supply for heating and cooling in 2012, whereas fossil fuels – mainly gas - accounted for the major share of 75%2. These shares take into consideration the type of energy used to produce electricity and district heating. Biomass is the most largely used renewable source for heating i.e. 90%; renewable-based electricity accounts to 5% and ambient heat 1%.

The energy supply composition for district heating is very country-specific. Fossil fuels, mainly natural gas and coal, cover a share of between 80% and 100% of the energy supply for district heating in Eastern European countries, while renewables such as biomass play a prominent role in Sweden (49%) as well as in Austria (41%) and Estonia (35%)3.

Despite the low share of renewable use, renewable-based heating technologies exist and they are a proud innovation of European industry: solar thermal, heat pumps and biomass boilers are some examples.

The latest hybrid technologies have a great potential to increase the contribution of renewables in heating. Hybrids, for example those including a heat pump with a condensing boiler, smartly use two energy sources in order to improve overall system efficiency, reduce running costs and keep the high comfort levels expected by end-users.

A real political commitment to energy efficiency is needed to motivate the consumer towards the uptake of energy efficient solutions and behaviours. This is why energy efficiency should be an essential part of the transition towards the decarbonisation of buildings. Energy efficiency is of great value, especially in the short and medium run, because it reduces Europe’s dependence on external supply as well as contributing to CO2 reduction targets.

What do the latest heating technologies offer the European consumer in terms of efficiency and environmental benefits?

Today’s heating technologies offer consumers at least 25% energy efficiency gains and reduce polluting CO2 emissions, compared with the old and inefficient systems they should replace.

The benefits of modernising heating systems are all the more relevant due to the size of the sector. Indeed, space heating and hot water production represent about 85% of the energy used in an average European building, by far the largest share.

And today’s heating technologies can bring these benefits to everybody. Why? Because there are very many heating technologies, each made to suit specific preferences of the user and each fit for specific building types. Simply substituting a traditional boiler with state-of-the-art, condensing technology would deliver at least 25% energy efficiency gains and can reduce CO2 emissions by about 35%. This technology currently drives the modernisation of heaters, also due to its affordability. But other technologies, such as hybrids, heat pumps, solar thermal and biomass bring great energy savings and environmental benefits. For example, a solar thermal system installed in Belgium can provide two thirds of the hot water consumption of a household.

But heating technologies are not limited to heat generation. Heat should also be efficiently delivered to people. In this sense, the action of low-temperature radiators and surface heating, combined with modern temperature controls, further increases energy efficiency gains. For example, well installed, state-of-the-art radiators reduce a system’s consumption by 9% to 13%.

What is the current focus of research in the European heating industry, and what do you see as priority areas for future research?

The European heating industry invests 700 million EUR / year in research, development and innovation in energy efficiency. Currently there are two broad trends of innovation: first, flexible energy integration, through hybrids, and secondly, the ‘smart’ or ‘connected’ home.

Responsible for the highest share of energy consumption in a building, heating and hot water production has a lot to contribute to global energy saving and to decarbonisation goals. This is why our industry has devised technologies which enable the flexible integration of two or more energy sources, and increase the system efficiency: these are hybrids.

How do they work? Think of a heating generator made of an electric heat pump supported by a condensing boiler, then linked to a photovoltaic or a solar thermal panel and a hot water storage tank resulting in a single, connected system. Monitoring the trends in the cost of energy and, via an intelligent control, the individual energy demand at different times of the day, a hybrid supplies heat from the more efficient source at any moment, either directly or with the support of hot water storage tanks. Hybrids are a new way to increase efficient electricity and renewables use in heating.

Individual energy management and, more generally, consumer empowerment trends have been the driver for the development of “smart home” appliances, including in the heating sector. Heating appliances are increasingly connected to other appliances in the house and to energy utilities, which can use this connection to stabilise the grid, when necessary. But this is not all: connectivity allows users to autonomously monitor and manage their energy consumption, the performance of their energy generators, including the effectiveness of their solar panel and all of this while at home via user-friendly and fun interfaces or remotely, simply using their smartphone.

What are the main challenges facing the heating industry in Europe and what needs to be done to overcome them?

From the regulatory point of view, the main challenge is to translate commitments for energy efficiency into practice. Conflicting legislation on energy efficiency should be avoided. The revision of the energy labelling legislation is a case in point.

In order to reach the ambitious energy efficiency goals of the EU for 2030 and beyond, Europe needs to tap into the potential that lies in modernising heating in buildings, which currently contribute to almost half of the EU energy consumption. The energy label can help, by increasing consumer awareness and motivate them to change their old appliances.

But just as Europe is set to introduce this label to boost the replacement of inefficient heaters, new plans to modify the Directive’s defining feature, the energy scale, send a conflicting message to the market and threaten to slow down the modernisation process. “Rescaling” the energy label will place appliances such as the most efficient geothermal heat pump in class C, or state of the art condensing boiler technology in class F. But who would buy an F-graded product? Consumers will rather repair an old appliance and postpone their investment in energy efficient products.

This is why we believe that “rescaling” the label of heating products, introduced in the EU market only in September 2015, will not increase the energy efficiency of our buildings: perversely, it might stop this positive trend.

The solution, according to us, is to “rescale” when it is needed, that is, when the majority of products falls in the top classes of the energy scale, which would indicate that efficient heaters have penetrated the market. Until then, the energy label should do its job: to motivate consumers to become more efficient in the way they heat their homes.

Committing to “energy efficiency first” should also mean to look critically at the impact a policy will have on the uptake of energy efficiency in Europe.

How does the heating industry in Europe perform compared to other regions in the world? Are there lessons that can be learned from international experience?

The European heating industry is the world leader in highly efficient hydronic heating systems. These systems have established themselves as the solution of choice in terms of comfort and efficiency in distributing heat within a building. This is particularly important for areas with cold winters: today the European heating industry covers 90% of the European market and is an important exporter of heating technologies in many other parts of the world. This includes countries such as Russia, where we are market leader, Turkey where we represent half of the market, and even in China where we play an increasingly important role in the development and deployment of efficient heating.

The EU commitment to ambitious energy and climate goals has paved the way for the large presence of our energy efficient technologies. Today Europe has the highest standards in the world in terms of energy efficiency, strengthened recently by the introduction of Ecodesign criteria for the sale of heating products. From now on, the minimum standard for a new heating installation is represented by the very efficient boiler condensing technology. This move is bound to have a long-term positive effect for EU energy independence and climate protection, if accompanied by measures to support the renovation of the installed stock of heaters.

The lesson to be learnt is that the European industry can support ambitious energy efficiency policies, but it needs a full commitment to the goal of energy efficiency policy stability, as a signal to continue to invest in these highly successful technologies.

Federica Sabbati
Secretary General
European Heating Industry

1COM (2016) 51 final: Staff Working Document accompanying the document Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions: “An EU Strategy on Heating and Cooling”, {SWD(2016) 24 final}, Brussels 16 February 2016, page 25.

2Ibidem, page 26.

3Ibidem, page 89-90.