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07 Dec 2023, 13:07
Benjamin Wehrmann

Heat pumps and district heating instead of hydrogen needed for Berlin’s heating transition – analysis

Clean Energy Wire

Berlin’s heating transition should not rely on hydrogen as a replacement for natural gas, as current plans envisage, an analysis by the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW) has found. Instead, the transition should be based on a combination of district heating and solar-powered heat pumps. The German capital, which currently sources about 60 percent of its heating energy from natural gas, plans to adopt a heating transition plan by 2026 as a key step on its envisaged path towards climate neutrality by 2045. Plans by Berlin’s biggest energy companies, Vattenfall and Gasag, include a substantial share of hydrogen in heating in the next years. “These plans contradict Berlin’s climate targets and ultimately the energy and security goals of Germany,” the DIW researchers said. Relying on hydrogen for heating would “create new dependencies” as hydrogen cannot be produced domestically in sufficient amounts. By contrast, “electricity from renewable sources and heat pumps are the most efficient way to ensure Berlin’s heat supply after natural gas,” researcher Franziska Holz said. High conversion losses in hydrogen production would make the synthetic fuel much less efficient and more costly than direct electricity use. Large and centralised heat pumps, for example in rivers, industry plants or in sewage treatment facilities would allow a cheaper and more efficient way to heat the country’s largest city with a population of about 3.8 million people. For this, the power grid would have to be updated accordingly and allow for a growing use of electricity in heating systems. Heating generation currently accounts for about half of the city’s carbon emissions, as about 44 percent of all heating systems in buildings and 53 percent of all district heating plants are powered with natural gas, the DIW added.

Decarbonising heating systems has been one of the central aims of Germany’s federal government coalition, leading to a severe dispute about outlawing new fossil heating systems and bringing technologies like heat pumps or district heating to scale within the next two decades. Cities and municipalities across the country have been tasked with drawing up tailormade plans for how a transition towards decarbonised heating could best be implemented. While so-called green hydrogen, which is produced with renewable power, is expected to play an important role in applications such as industrial production or aviation, plans for using it in other fields, including heating and road transport, have been criticised. Opponents lament the risk of squandering the precious green fuel in areas where other technologies offer much more efficient solutions, but proponents argue green hydrogen could allow for the continued use of existing fossil fuel infrastructure with the climate neutral gas.

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