Heating and cooling

19 Jul 22

Long-term vision wanted: energy efficiency (not gas purchases) will get us through future winters

Emergency plans are necessary to keep Europe running this winter. But EU leaders should keep sight of our long-term needs: energy independence, affordable bills, and meeting our climate commitments. Energy savings must be at the heart of these plans. We have the tools: Ecodesign and energy labelling, the phase-out of gas boilers, smart grid deployment, and massive building renovation. Now we need large-scale funding to put them all to good use.

Winter is coming. With a plausible cut-off from Russian gas on the horizon, the European Union leadership is racing to devise plans to make it through the cold season.

On Wednesday, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen will present the EU’s strategy to weather the energy crisis this winter. It will likely include an update to national contingency plans, supply diversification, and perhaps joint gas purchases. But, above all, Brussels will probably announce a plan to boost energy savings and efficiency.

This is not a surprise. Reducing our energy consumption is the cleanest, cheapest way to wean ourselves off Russian (or any other) oil and gas – and to meet the EU’s 2030 climate commitments. The greenest and, cheapest energy is the one that is not consumed.

EU leaders know this, and energy savings are finally being given the spotlight they deserve. In fact, last week, the European Parliament’s industry committee backed requiring member states reduce their energy consumption by 14.5% by 2030, compared to 2020 levels, as part of the new Energy Efficiency Directive.

But ambitious words and targets alone will not cut our energy bills. Energy-saving programmes must be properly funded and brought to the top of the priority list. Experience shows that energy savings are extremely effective… but often fall short of their potential because of a lack of political will.

The good news is that, in the last 30 years, Europe’s energy consumption has remained rather flat. The bad news is that we need better than flat.

Ecodesign to reduce our energy bills

The EU has the tools to cut household energy bills long-term. Ecodesign is perhaps the most powerful one. It is behind a substantial part of the energy savings that keep our consumption flat. What is ecodesign? In Europe, dozens of ICT products and home appliances must comply with energy efficiency and other requirements to be allowed on the market. If they consume too much energy, they cannot be sold. Then, an energy label attracts consumers to the most efficient options among the products allowed. The bar is raised every few years, creating a race towards excellence.

Ecodesign policies are on track to save some 230 million tonnes of oil equivalent by 2030 – roughly one-third of all the CO2 emission savings the EU needs to meet its 2030 climate commitments. The effects will be felt in households too. Thanks to ecodesign, every EU household is expected to save €285 on their energy bills every year. With the current price spike, those savings are likely to be much higher.

This apparently simple policy is one of the most successful actions the European Union has ever taken in reducing global emissions.

However, the impact could have been even higher if ecodesign had been given the political priority it deserves. Due to poor funding, ecodesign updates for dozens of products have been stalled for years. Our estimations show that delays will cost consumers €40 billion by 2030 – and, again this was calculated before the recent increase in prices.

The challenge is poised to grow much bigger. The EU will soon extend ecodesign to virtually all products on the market. The ambition is welcome but will not reach its full potential unless properly funded.

A comprehensive plan for a complex problem

Of course, ecodesign alone will not make the EU independent from Russian gas. There is much more that governments can do to save energy.

Phasing out the sale of fossil fuel boilers would be a bold but necessary leap towards energy independence. It is a low-hanging fruit. The technology is there: heat pumps and district heating systems are incredibly efficient and can run on renewable-sourced electricity.

Banning fossil fuel boilers as of 2025 would save the equivalent of 21% of the EU’s Russian gas imports by 2030, a new Coolproducts study shows. Some countries are leading the way: Germany has plans for a massive rollout of heat pumps, and the Netherlands is banning fossil heating as of 2026.

To ensure that no one is left behind, the 10 EU countries that still give subsidies to gas boilers should end those programmes immediately. Instead, governments should help families switch to heat pumps powered by renewables.

Going a step further, in last weeks´ vote, the Parliament made clear that replacing old boilers with new, more efficient gas fossil boilers should not count towards energy saving targets. When renovating homes, gas and oil boilers should be out of the equation as soon as the Energy Efficiency Directive is in force, leading MEP on the file Niels Fuglsang explained at a press conference.

Smart grids and demand-side flexibility are the jewels of the energy savings crown. They should be deployed everywhere to make sure we squeeze every single watt. In simple terms, our electric cars and home appliances should be drawing energy from the grid at times of low demand (usually at night) or during renewable electricity generation peaks (when the sun shines or the wind blows). This would make our overall energy needs much more constant and synced to renewable energy production, reducing the need for fossil fuels. 

All of these actions must be coupled with massive building renovation programmes and the deployment of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar, particularly on the roofs to allow for on-site consumption.

The necessary effort might be daunting, but with decisive action, the EU can wean itself off Russian gas and all fossil fuels. This winter does call for an emergency plan, but politicians must keep the long-term needs in sight. We have the tools we need: ecodesign & energy labelling, banning fossil fuel boilers, smart grids and massive renovation. They will be our only way to build an energy model that is environmentally sustainable and independent from Russian oligarchs. 

In times of emergency, we need ambitious foresight. In times of gas rush, we need heat pumps and energy savings. And the funds to make them a reality. 

Rita Tedesco, Head of Energy Transition, Environmental Coalition on Standards (ECOS); and Davide Sabbadin, Senior Policy Officer for Climate and Circular Economy, European Environmental Bureau (EEB).