In the Western Balkans, heating based on fossil fuels is making air pollution worse and is also the source of half of greenhouse gas emissions. Sustainable and affordable heating systems based on renewables are no fantasy. They operate successfully in other parts of Europe, and can be implemented in the Western Balkans if decision makers start acting now.
Nataša Kovačević, District Heating campaigner for the Western Balkans | 16 May 2022
Solar power plant, Marstal, Denmark, Image by Erik Christensen (CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)
After a winter marred by hiking gas prices and against the backdrop of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, now redrawing the European energy map, Western Balkan government need to take special note. In fact, if there were ever an ideal moment for policymakers in the region to step up the transition to sustainable heating systems, then that moment is now.
Unfortunately, some governments are using this crisis to weaken their own climate obligations. This includes illegally prolonging the operation of coal-fired power plants such as the Kakanj 5 and Tuzla 4 plants in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) – or trying to create new opportunities for coalprofitsby opening new export-oriented coal mines, like Mataruge and Glisnica in Pljevlja, Montenegro.
In other cases, however, state authorities are taking their first steps towards modern heating infrastructure based on renewables; geothermal heating in Sarajevo (BiH), solar thermal heating with seasonal storage in Novi Sad (Serbia) and heat pumps based on waste heat from utilities in Valjevo and Kruševac (Serbia) are just a few examples.
For Western Balkans, heating needs to be the next hot thing
One thing is for sure: the decarbonisation of the heating sector in the Western Balkans must dramatically accelerate. Coal will be phased out over the next 15 years and, so far, renewables comprise just 0.4 per cent of the region’s heating energy mix.
Planning and implementing clean heating requires significant investment and is a long-term process. It takes a well-developed policy and legal framework and strong municipal-level action coupled with support from local communities. It also requires the capacity to make use of all available financing mechanisms, including funds from the EU, Western Balkans Investment Framework, European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and other international financial institutions.
Renewables-based heating systems keep Denmark’s hygge
Thankfully, we don’t have to look far to find proven examples of functional, heating systems that combine low-temperature technologies and energy efficiency measures and rely on various renewable sources. Plenty of EU countries have been implementing these systems for 20 years or more.
For example, solar heating has in recent years made great progress in Denmark’s district heating systems, and the country has the highest number of such heating plants, as well as the biggest plants in the world.
In 2014, the city of Marstal, on the island of Ærø reached 100 per cent renewable heating by integrating large-scale heat storage into the production system, which balances energy loads from several renewable sources, including half of the island’s solar thermal plant. This project required an investment of just EUR 15 million, EUR 6 million of which came from EU funds, and today, it produces heat at the cost of EUR 55 per megawatt hour (MWh), half as much as consumers elsewhere pay for heating from gas-based systems.
Moreover, the solar technologies implemented in Denmark are not only free from the choking air pollution heating systems based on fossil fuels often generate, they also come with trouble-free operations and negligibly low maintenance costs. For all these reasons, Denmark’s solar plants have proven to be very reliable over the past 25 to 30 years.
One of the key milestones in the quest to achieve high production efficiency, energy stability and a significant decrease in CO2 emissions will be the integration of highly efficient technologies that enhance the use of local renewables like solar and geothermal energy. These technologies include heat pumps, heat recovery from existing industrial buildings or data centres, and heat storage. Heat pumps turn 1 kilowatt hour (KWh) of energy into 3 to 6 KWh of heat, making them five times more efficient than gas boilers (0.9 KWh). This is why the EU heat pump market is expanding rapidly, with around 1.8 million new pumps set up and 12 per cent annual average growth since 2015. Sweden and Germany are the European leaders in ground-source heat pump usage, while in Vienna, one of Europe’s largest heat pump plants supplies the equivalent of 25,000 households using waste heat and ambient heat from the Danube Canal.
Key role for heat pumps
To achieve decarbonisation targets in the district heating sector and net zero emissions by 2050, we simply have to install more heat pumps. However, to meet countries’ energy needs, and rapidly scale- up the deployment of heat pumps in the Western Balkans, governments should put the right policies in place – from financial incentives that offset the high upfront prices to programmes that train skilled professionals to clear permitting framework.
The EU’s heat pumps industry claims that it is ready for more than 50 million heat pumps to be fitted in households across Europe by 2030 and with the potential for up to 20 per cent growth per year. Yet, national policies need to address barriers to this goal, including high upfront purchase prices, operational costs, and the legacy of the existing building stock. One way to incentivise the uptake of heat pumps would be to exclude gas boilers and fossil gas blending heaters from national and EU public financing and redirect operational funds towards subsidies for heat pumps and related technologies.
Since 2015, subsidies have proven effective at offsetting the upfront cost of heat pumps and initiating market dynamics that accelerate their uptake in newly constructed buildings. The United Kingdom, which aims to deploy 600,000 heat pumps by 2028, will rely on grants and fiscal incentives to promote their use, while the Canadian province of British Columbia is offering no-interest loans to replace fossil fuel boilers with heat pumps.
Time to kickstart the decarbonisation of the heating sector
Western Balkan countries have taken some modest steps towards the implementation of sustainable district heating solutions, but some cities throughout the region such as Tuzla, Pljevlja, Sarajevo, Kostolac, Obrenovac, Pristina and Bitola – remain dependent on coal and gas for heating and power that generate toxic air pollution.
Phasing out fossil fuels in heating systems is not just about energy security and affordable energy sources; it’s also the best way to dramatically reduce CO2 emissions in the heating sector, which account for half of total emissions in Western Balkan countries. Governments need to take a progressive approach to transforming their heating systems through the integration of renewable solutions and ambitious energy-efficiency measures – and they need to start now. Thankfully, a proven blueprint for this transition already exists, and it can simply be copy-pasted to the Wester Balkans.
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