The lack of modernisation and rehabilitation of Romania’s district heating systems is felt most strongly by the inhabitants, but it also affects local budgets and has a negative impact on the environment.
Alexandra Doroftei, Bankwatch Romania campaigner | 3 March 2023
The inefficiency of the old district heating systems raises a different set of concerns among different stakeholders. For residents, it’s the lack of heat and hot water, caused by frequent system breakdowns, not to mention the ever-increasing bills. The inhabitants of cities with heating systems such as Bucharest, Timișoara, Craiova etc. frequently run out of hot water and heat. For us environmental activists, it’s the increase in CO2 emissions and other pollutants, despite district heating being less polluting than individual heating units taken together. And for debt-laden municipalities unlucky enough to administer a coal or gas-based thermal power plant, it’s the high prices of CO2 emission allowances and the losses they have to cover with money from the public budget. But a range of modern technologies based on renewable energy, already proven throughout Europe, could breathe new life into Romania’s district heating systems.
Over the past 30 years, the number of district heating systems in Romania has been decreasing. According to Challenges and opportunities for the centralised thermal energy supply system in Romania, back in 1996 and 1997, 308 Romanian communities were connected to district heating networks. By 2021, this number had fallen to 50.
This decline can be linked to inefficiency due to the hot water losses in the heat transportation grid, which it is itself the result of a lack of modernisation of these systems; economic problems associated with the non-payment of bills by some consumers; and frequent breakdowns resulting from, in most cases, technologically outdated facilities.
The Romanian governments decided, during the past three decades, to allocate funds to ensure the continued operation of district heating systems. Only recently, a sum of RON 41.3 million (EUR 8.39 million) was earmarked for 2020 and RON 310.4 million (EUR 63.09 million) for 2021.
Evolution of the number of homes connected to district heating systems
Source: National Authority for Energy Reglementation (ANRE), Raport privind starea serviciului public de alimentare cu energie termică în sistem centralizat pentru anul 2021
The disappearance of the district heating systems combined with the increasingly low quality of existing heating services has led to the mass disconnection of households from this district heating source. Many people have been forced to find quick solutions based on what they can afford and without necessarily weighing up the pros and cons of their choices. While some have switched to individual heating fuelled by wood-fired boilers, unfortunately most have opted for fossil-gas boilers.
Bucharest, Romania’s most crowded city, has the largest number of active district heating systems. However, they are not available in all areas, and the resulting differences in air quality are evident. For instance, Bucharest’s Sector 1, where a significant number of properties and buildings are not connected to a district heating system, has recorded three times more carbon monoxide pollution than Sector 3 has.
Modern and efficient heating systems, especially those that rely on renewable energy sources (geothermal systems, photovoltaic panels, solar panels, heat pumps, etc.) come with many benefits. Unlike individual heating systems, those supplied by clean energy sources run more efficiently, reduce pollution, maintain a secure supply and help cut down on total costs.
Yet, so far, Beiuş is the only city in Romania heated exclusively by geothermal sources. Since 1998, a nearby thermal plant has been providing geothermal water extracted from depths of 2,500 to 3,000 metres. This district system distributes a thermal agent for heating as well as hot water for consumption, supplying 103 apartments in condominiums, schools, kindergartens, churches and public institutions.
Indeed, there is a vast, untapped potential for sustainable district heating throughout the country. The town of Motru is one promising example. According to a November 2022 study commissioned by Bankwatch Romania, a lignite-fired plant that has been feeding the local district heating system could be replaced by heat pumps powered by solar panels. Of all the scenarios examined, heating based on renewable sources proved the most sustainable.
In Bucharest’s City Hall, studies on the feasibility of installing heat pumps that would serve homes connected to the district system in the north of the city are being discussed.
Last year, in 2022, the local council of Sector 1 advanced a ‘heating from the sun’ solution, which would see solar panels and heat pumps installed in blocks where heating services are not up to scratch. Although the formal proposal by the mayor of Sector 1 was not adopted, the administration of Sector 3 subsequently announced their intention to launch a similar initiative.
Bucharest City Hall is responsible for heating the city of Bucharest. As such, it should consider the use of renewables like solar, geothermal and wind energy as realistic options, and should initiate feasibility studies to find the best sustainable solutions. The continuous development of the municipality and the increasing distance of consumers from sources of production can only result in further technological heat losses. Priority must be given to the diversification, improvement and augmentation of renewable thermal energy production. How efficiently these goals are met will depend on the rehabilitation and modernisation of the heating grid.
Overall, Romania still has a decent number of functioning district heating systems. But it is very important that these systems not only remain functional, but also switch to production from renewable energy sources.
Feasibility studies for the modernisation of district heating systems should also be encouraged in order to determine the most sustainable option, whether it be heat recovery from industrial systems, photovoltaic panels, heat pumps, geothermal sources or wastewater heat.
Responsibility also falls on international financial institutions that finance these district heating projects to invest in renewables to the highest extent possible. Even with a minimum 20 per cent output, a district heating system will supply hundreds of thousands of inhabitants while delivering positive benefits for the environment and people’s health.
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