Heating and cooling

17 May 22

Overcoming the real bottlenecks to European renewable transition

The EU is looking to lower the barriers to renewable energy investment and adoption to urgently divert away from Russian gas. However, the solution proposed is endangering environmental standards, instead of tackling long-standing bottlenecks in technical, human, and financial resources, writes Bich Dao.

Ukraine’s ravaging devastation has made turning off the Russian gas tap to stop funding the Kremlin’s war chests the EU’s highest priority right now. The urgency has seen the establishment of the emergency plan REPowerEU, which aims to drastically reduce dependence on Russia for energy. 

Leaked drafts of the REPowerEU proposal, which is to be announced this week 18 May, foresees a massive deployment of solar panels, heat pumps and solar thermal heating systems in the coming years to drastically reduce the use of gas in buildings.

This includes the installation of more than twice of today’s solar PV capacity and around 10 million heat pumps in five years. The proposal will also envisage higher renewable and energy efficiency targets by 2030 and a targeted push for wind energy and green hydrogen.

While the ambition of the proposal is welcomed, in the push for renewable transition, the EU is also considering loosening environmental regulations for renewable investment, addressing an issue that has not presented itself as a major concern for the sector and potentially undermining European biodiversity efforts

All the while, we have yet to see talks addressing the actual barriers that have delayed the adoption of renewable technology such as heat pumps for years, particularly ones that concern the commitment of human, financial, and political resources. 

Training lags

Despite the booming demands, several member states desperately lack trained heat pump installers, creating a bottleneck in the deployment of the renewable heating solution. 

The success of REPowerEU and national renewable policies rely on clear targets and financial support to formally train and certify heating and cooling professionals, both on heat pump installations as well as natural refrigerants. Developing the human and technical resources in Europe is also an opportunity for the renewable transition to enrich and expand the block’s labour market. 

Renewables for all

Repowering the EU should also mean empowering even the most vulnerable consumers with the choice to break their dependence on gas. With rising gas prices threatening millions with energy poverty, the EU and member states should see the renewable transition as a solution to a social crisis as much as it is a security question, and ensure that the renewable transition does not leave anyone behind by financially supporting lower-income households. 

With the current gas pricing, renewable heating and cooling solutions stand to be more cost-effective in operation. However, the upfront cost of switching to heat pumps and solar thermal remains a steep barrier for adoption, with the investment being affordable in only 8 member states, despite its long-run benefits for health, climate, and personal finances. 

An effective and fair deployment of new heating and cooling technology must foresee support to lower-income users to escape the gas systems by making heat pumps more affordable.

This is most relevant for the Eastern side of the bloc, which has seen larger delays in renewable transition due to economic reasons as well as lower public climate commitments. With the invasion of Ukraine, the security question has fueled the need to break away from Russian gas. It is more important than ever to leverage this political will with proper financial incentives to drive forward the transition.

On the positive side, other member states have already shown the ambition that should be taken at EU level: The Netherlands and Germany, for instance, have already declared war on fossil-only gas boilers from 2026 and 2025 respectively. 

Deep renovations

A switch to the right energy must go hand in hand with addressing the energy efficiency of European building stock, the renovation plans of which lack clear targets on climate ambitions. Currently, 3 out 4 homes in Europe do not meet energy efficiency standards, putting tens of millions of Europeans at risk of energy poverty.

For example, in Hungary, according to Eurostat data, 26% of Hungarians live in a dwelling not comfortably cool during summer and nearly 20% live in a dwelling insufficient in warmth during wintertime. In many cases, this becomes a question of life and death: in recent years during heat waves in Hungary, the number of deaths increased on average by 15% – and the climate crisis forebodes an even more frightening future.

To meet the REpowerEU goal of saving 38 bcm of gas per year from energy efficiency measures, 80 million houses should be renovated by 2030. As the Renovation Wave goal is to renovate 35 million homes, the ambition of the EU Green Deal needs to be ramped up.

Climate-led decisions

While renewable energy holds the key to many social and security challenges faced by the EU, the urgency behind the REPowerEU strategy is not an excuse to circumvent long-term decision-making at the cost of worsening the climate crisis. While moving fast, the seismic shift in our energy consumption pattern must foresee medium as well as long-term effects. 

As previously mentioned, biodiversity protection is potentially compromised in an effort to lower investment barriers. However, bureaucracy, competencies issues between administrations and lack of skilled energy professionals have been identified by the Commission as the main hinders to repower Europe, not environmental regulations.

From larger pictures to more technical details, renewable technologies should also uphold long-term climate ambitions – an urgent crisis of its own, not compromising in name of short-term deliverables. Faced with the urgency to seek independence from Russian gas imports, the Commission has adopted the F-Gas regulation and has failed to set a higher bar on the use of fluorinated refrigerants in existing heat pumps on market, meaning that the much-needed seismic shift from gas boilers will deliver lower climate benefits.

REPowerEU is an ambitious policy file that has the potential to be key for European security, but we have the chance to make it the turnkey in our climate and social crises, starting by making long-term solutions that tackle actual and known barriers.