Why renewable heat is the key to the successful deployment of renewable energy

EU nations have been trying for several years now to deliver their contributions to their commitments that renewable energy will supply 20% of EU energy requirements in 2020.

They have pursued different strategies with varying success. One way in which they have differed is in the balance between the electricity, transport and heat sectors that they have pursued or allowed to occur. How have these choices affected the success of their policies?


RES increase vs RES-E shareRES progress vs RES-E share

Emphasising renewable electricity in the mix has a slightly negative effect on the success of the policies. In countries that have delivered a lot of renewable energy, and that have gone a long way towards meeting their commitments, electricity has been a somewhat smaller part of the mix than in those countries that are performing badly.


RES increase vs RES-T shareRES progress vs RES-T share

Relying on renewable transport has a strongly negative effect on the delivery of a country’s commitments. Renewable transport is a small part of the mix in countries that are doing well, and those countries where renewable transport is a bigger part of the mix are doing badly in meeting their obligations.


RES increase vs RES-H shareRES progress vs RES-H share

An emphasis on renewable heat has a strongly positive effect on the success of the overall policy. Countries where renewable heat is a big part of the mix are well on the road to delivering their targets, while countries that have focused on the other sectors at the expense of renewable heat are lagging behind.


If a government is serious about delivering its 2020 renewable-energy commitments, it will allow or encourage renewable heat to play a big part in the mix.


1. Heat is a much bigger part (roughly 40%) of final energy consumption than electricity (roughly 20%). 10% renewable electricity only contributes 2% towards the combined renewable energy targets. 10% renewable heat contributes 4% towards the renewable energy targets.

2. Heat (and CHP) systems convert much more of their fuel to usable energy than electricity-only systems. 100 MWh of biomass will produce around 85-90 MWh of heat, but only 18-35 MWh of electricity.

3. Unless policies try to skew markets to produce different outcomes, biomass heat can be deployed relatively cheaply and extensively compared to most other forms of renewables. Countries that try to skew outcomes towards more expensive technologies can deliver less for their budget, and tend to underperform.

A closely associated factor with the trends noted above is that the countries that are (a) doing well overall, and (b) relying heavily on renewable heat are generally the countries whose policies make fewer attempts to pick winners, particularly if those “winners” are renewable transport or expensive renewable electricity technologies (such as offshore wind). With technology-neutral policies (e.g. carbon pricing), markets will tend to deliver a relatively high proportion of renewable heat and a relatively low proportion of renewable electricity and particularly of renewable transport. By simply picking the most cost-effective options, unencumbered by government attempts to buck the markets, they tend to perform better in terms of both cost and delivery.

How the figures are calculated

The EU SHARES project has published figures for the final energy consumption of various types of renewable energy and of energy generally in the electricity, transport and heat sectors, in each EU country and across the EU-28 countries combined, between 2004 and 2012.

Based on these figures, the increase in renewable energy consumption as electricity, transport and heat between 2004 and 2012 was calculated. The proportions that each contributed to the overall increase were calculated from these figures. These are the proportions (expressed as the percentage of the overall increase) used on the Y axes of the graphs.

The difference between renewable energy’s overall share of final energy consumption in 2004 and in 2012, expressed as percentage points (e.g. an increase from 4% in 2004 to 12% in 2012 is shown as an 8% increase) is used for the X-axis values labeled RES percentage points increase 2004-12.

For the charts labeled RES progress to 2020 target 2004-12, the percentage points increase was divided by the difference between the overall renewable energy share in 2004 and the level of the country’s commitment for the 2020 target. For instance, if a country was at 4% in 2004, had reached 12% in 2012 and had a target of 14%, the value would be calculated as (12 – 4) / (14 – 4) = 80%, i.e. it is 80% of the way to meeting its target.

The latter is probably a better indicator. Different countries have different advantages in the deployment of renewable energy. It may be more difficult for one country to increase its renewables than another. The latter indicator (the second of each pair of charts) largely neutralizes these differences by measuring countries according to their progress in delivering what they themselves believed to be deliverable in their National Renewable Energy Action Plans.

The second of each pair of charts, showing the relationships between reliance on electricity, transport or heat and progress in meeting their own targets, shows that the countries that have relied more heavily on heat are progressing better than those countries that have relied more heavily on electricity and transport.

That should be a lesson for countries like the UK, the Netherlands and Ireland, which seem sometimes to think that renewable energy is renewable electricity. They have put most of their eggs in a basket that won’t get most of the eggs home. The inequitable division of funds and effort between electricity and heat in these countries is neither rational nor effective. It is a good way of ensuring that those countries will spend a lot of money in order to miss their targets. The budgets should be redistributed from electricity to heat, to get more bang-for-the-buck from the heat sector.

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