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Heating and cooling sectors need to step up climate action

Brian Stauffer for POLITICO
Brian Stauffer for POLITICO

A renewables “revolution” is driving change in the power industry, according to REN21’s latest Global Energy Outlook, but the heating and cooling sectors are lagging behind in this global transition.

While renewable energy had its biggest year last year – with an estimated 178 gigawatts of added capacity – the use of solar, geothermal and bioenergy for heating and cooling saw little change.

Renewable energy supplied about 10.3 per cent of total global heat production in 2015, according to the report, and while there has been some additional bio-heat, geothermal and solar thermal added, growth has been “very slow”, and nowhere near where it needs to be.

“If the world is to achieve the target set in the Paris agreement, then heating, cooling and transport will need to follow the same path as the power sector – and fast,” the REN21 report warns.

REN21 executive director Rana Adibsaid equating electricity with energy was leading to complacency.

“We may be racing down the pathway towards a 100 per cent renewable electricity future, but when it comes to heating, cooling and transport, we are coasting along as if we had all the time in the world. Sadly, we don’t.”

Policy frameworks needed 

The policy frameworks around renewable heating and cooling was one of the key barriers, with the report saying policymakers gave the area less attention than power generation.

For example, national targets for renewable energy for heating and cooling application existed in only 48 countries, though more than three times as many countries (146) had targets for renewable energy in the power sector.

Policy attention doesn’t match relative importance, however, with heating and cooling responsible for 48 per cent of final energy use, compared with electricity’s 20 per cent. 

The report said there were some positive signs, though. 

In India, for example, installations of solar thermal collectors rose about 25 per cent in 2017, compared to the previous year. China is also aiming to have two per cent of cooling loads for all buildings come from solar thermal energy by 2020.

REN chair Arthouros Zervos called for the end of fossil fuel subsidies and for governments to set “hard targets and policy” on renewable heating, cooling and transport. 

“Without this leadership, it will be difficult for the world to meet climate or sustainable development commitments.”

Things looking up for district-scale systems 

Another just-released report on solar heat from the International Energy Agency’s Solar Heating and Cooling Programme backs up the REN21 report. 

Solar Heat Worldwide: Global Market Development and Trends in 2017 found that the solar thermal market was down 4.2 per cent worldwide compared to the previous year. Part of this has to do with small-scale solar hot water heaters facing competition from low fossil fuel prices, heat pumps and photovoltaic systems.

However, large megawatt-scale district heating and cooling systems, as well as industrial applications, are showing positive signs.  

By the end of 2017 there were about 300 large-scale solar thermal systems in operation with a capacity of 1140MW thermal, including in Australia, the report found, with 15 added in 2017.

“More and more countries recognise that solar thermal district heating is the most cost-effective way to decarbonise the heating sector,” IEA SHC Programme chair Ken Guthrie said. 

Solar heat for industrial processes (SHIP) also grew larger, with 124 new large systems put into operation.

“2017 was a record year for new SHIP installations driven by economic competitiveness, a strong supply chain and policies to reduce air pollution,” Mr Guthrie said.

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