Since the invasion of Ukraine by Putin’s Government, European countries find them- selves stuck in a painful situation. While eager to stop importing natural gas from Russia, they are at the same time extensively reliant on Russian natural gas for their energy supply and economy. So, then what? How should European cities get started on the green transition and reduce their natural gas dependency?
By Maëlle Caussarieu, Energy Planner, PhD, Municipality of Copenhagen
Copenhagen caught my attention as it first appeared to me as a site without subsequent resources to engage in energy system change. The municipality was said to have social and ethnic divides, a high rate of residents relying on social assistance, and a deteriorated hous- ing fabric. Nevertheless, the city was embark- ing on transitioning its “traditional” DH grid into the so-called “4th Generation DH grid”. Such a transition is acknowledged in the sci- entific literature as requiring significant trans- formations such as low return temperature, low-temperature energy sources, low con- sumption, grid boosters, etc. How would and was a city with little means to engage in such an extensive transition? The answer lies in the ‘situatedness’ of the case; for the municipality, carrying out this agenda was not just a matter of energy transition but also a pragmatic way of revitalizing the city and deal- ing with the deteriorating housing fabric. As a matter of fact, the municipality of Albertslund was built over a little ten years – from 1963 to 1973; due to the pressing need for housing, the urban planners of the time decided to use prefabricated houses in a grid-like model to expand the city rapidly and with a standard- ized and affordable housing. But these prefab- ricated houses did not handle the wet Danish weather very well, and the problem of humid- ity and mold arose gradually. To tackle these challenges, the municipality and the DH practitioners decided that they would solve the devitalizing urban fabric. At the same time, embark the city on the green
Such a critical situation is not unprecedented; crises have prompted changes in energy supply systems in the past. For example, the Fukushima nuclear disaster provoked the closing of nuclear plants in Germany, and the oil crisis of 1973 prompt- ed the further development of district heating (DH) in Den- mark. Shocks and crises can be the spark that drives energy transitions. They can provoke new understandings and uses of already known technology, and district heating may be one of them. DH has significant potential to mitigate climate change, lower European reliance on Russian natural gas, supply low- cost heating, and improve air quality. In this article, I will present some findings from the DH devel- opment in Denmark and argue why these historical and con- temporary examples have relevance today. I will here present two arguments also developed in my Ph.D. thesis. First, from the Danish Government’s response to the oil crisis, I show how creating a common regulatory regime was central to facilitat- ing the large-scale deployment of DH. Second, based on the case of Albertslund municipality, I show that local parameters are essential in energy transition processes. Establishing and developing district heating in Denmark District heating: a response to a crisis Before the 1970s in Denmark, there were no dedicated ener- gy planning procedures or regulative authorities. Municipali- ty-owned DH companies were standard in the larger cities – and often, the DH supply was based on surplus heat from waste incineration plants. But when the 1973 oil crisis hit Denmark, the oil price increased by nearly 400%, seriously striking the country’s economy. With this oil embargo, Denmark realized that concerted action was needed to lower the dependency on imported oil, and an all- new Danish Energy Policy era started. Fuel diversification and energy savings became the main priorities at the national and
municipal levels, and DH became the backbone of the Govern- ment’s strategy. Politicians and regulators realized the poten- tial to exploit waste heat resources from electricity generation and waste incineration plants to increase energy efficiency. The Government thus recategorized DH from an available sur- plus heat source to necessary energy infrastructure. Establishing such large-scale infrastructures was nonetheless not done overnight. In the following section, I expose some of the elements that made this deployment feasible in Denmark and which may provide aspects of the answer as to “how to get started.” The importance of national regulation for local developments When the Danish Government realized the need to develop DH to reduce oil dependency, they established the Danish En- ergy Agency (DEA). This new regulative authority was tasked to create procedures, plans, and regulations to support and guide energy developments. The Danish Energy Agency soon signed the Heat Supply Act (1979), the first law regarding DH in Denmark. The Act holds the municipalities responsible for developing local DH infra- structures and most created municipally owned or coopera- tive companies to be in charge of these developments. This means that the new task of developing DH was in the hands of the local public practitioners. Yet, the DEA’s common planning practices guided this local and public task. Two regulations from the Heat Supply Act must be highlighted: the hvile-i-sig- selv principle (literally “rest upon itself”) and the socio-econom- ic calculations. The “ hvile-i-sig-selv ” principle stipulates that no profits can be made from the production and trade of heat. It stipulates which costs can be covered in the heating price and therefore secure the customers against possible abuses. The end-users were and are thereby ensured to obtain the lower heat prices
possible and to pay a fair amount for their heat supply. This principle, together with the local ownership of the infrastruc- ture, has grounded trust between the customers and their heat suppliers over time. The socio-economic calculations provided a framework for the public companies to deal with the uncertainties related to en- ergy planning. They were and still are nationally defining the references and baseline scenarios upon which practitioners are to base energy investment decisions. They assist the prac- titioners in assessing how to reach energy objectives in the most appropriate way for society while considering the terri- torial parameters. In other words, the DEA provided national guidelines while leaving enough room for the local practition- ers to consider their own locality. These national calculations thus enabled the local practitioners to continually find the most cost-efficient and environmentally friendly ways of heat supply. This framework has, over time, established a sense of commitment from the public practitioners to the infrastruc- tures at stake. Many say that these regulations are two key elements that have enabled a fast and solid further development of DH in Denmark, despite the lack of prior knowledge and plenty of uncertainties related to energy planning. These elements have, over time, grounded a sense of commitment to the task of doing something important for the good of society. It has en- abled the practitioners to implement new systems and tech- nologies despite many uncertainties and provided them with enough stability to navigate their world. District heating is bounded to the local parameters. DH systems are locally bounded systems, and it is, therefore, primordial to consider the territorial parameters. This section underlines this point through the example of one of my Ph.D. case studies, namely the energy transition of Albertslund mu- nicipality. This city of nearly 30,000 inhabitants 15 km from
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