Revolution in gas country the Netherlands: the Dutch government wants all residential buildings to be off gas in 2050. The objective is to reduce CO2 emissions from the built environment. But does phasing out gas deliver the expected results? Eline van den Ende spoke to experts and concludes that a ‘gas-less’ society makes sense only if additional measures are taken.
Unthinkable just a few years ago, but reality today. The Netherlands, a long-time major gas producer in which virtually all houses are connected to the gas grid, wants to remove gas as source of heating and cooking for all residential buildings. The main reason is that the government wants to reduce CO2 emissions from the built environment by 80% in 2050.
The first steps are already being taken. 31 municipalities, including the largest cities like Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Utrecht, have signed a ‘Green Deal’ for ‘gas-less neighbourhoods’, which will lead to the first residential districts being disconnected from the grid over the next two years. Many more will follow in the coming decades.
“The familiar, gas-fired condensed boiler will largely disappear over the next 35 years*
In climate policy debates, the focus is often on electricity generation, and lately on transport too, with the spread of electric cars. But heating is at least as important as energy source. In the Netherlands 38% of energy consumption goes to heating. Half of this is used by residential buildings. And 89% of Dutch houses have a gas-fired boiler. All in all, residential heating contributes to some 10% of Dutch CO2 emissions.
At the end of 2016, the Dutch government presented its “Energy Agenda” (Dutch-language link), which indicates the policies that should lead to an almost carbon-neutral economy in 2050. With regard to emissions from buildings, the two main policies are better insulation to reduce heat demand and the replacement of natural gas by alternative fuels with lower emissions.
Currently every house or residence is still legally entitled to a connection to the gas grid. This law will be annulled and replaced by a “right to a heating connection”. New houses will not be connected to the gas grid anymore in any case. The 7 million existing houses will be gradually disconnected from the gas grid.
From 2017 on, 170,000 houses should be disconnected every year. Local authorities will play a key role in this process. They will decide for each neighbourhood, block or even individual house what the best alternative heating source is.
“The familiar, gas-fired condensed boiler will largely disappear over the next 35 years”, says Jörg Gigler, director of TKI Gas, a national gas knowledge and innovation platform set up by the government. The goal of this platform, to which 200 companies and research institutions are connected, is to support the transition of the gas sector.
So how does the Netherlands intend to heat its homes in 2050 if not by gas? The KVGN – the Royal Association of Gas Companies in the Netherlands, which includes major parties such as Shell and transmission system operator Gasunie – earlier this year presented a vision (Dutch-language link) in which it indicated how the Netherlands can get rid of its gas addiction.
Electric heat pumps can only be used in well-insulated houses
As you can see in the graph below, according to the association, demand should decrease by 40% as a result of better insulation. 10% of demand will still be met with condensed boilers, 15% with electric heat pumps, 15% with hybrid heat pumps, and 20% with district heating networks. The latter will be run partly on waste heat (70%) and partly on geothermal sources (30%).
The question is, how effective will these alternatives be in reducing CO2 emissions? And how much will they cost? We will take a look at the alternatives in turn.
Electric heat pump
If you have an electric heat pump that runs on “green” (renewable) electricity, there are no CO2 emissions. But for all heat pumps to do so, it does mean that sufficient green power needs to be available. That’s not a given.
The use of heat pumps increases demand for electricity. On average electricity demand will jump from 3500 kWh now to 5000 kWh (on the assumption of 40% lower energy use), i.e. 50%.
Currently in the Netherlands only 12% of the electricity produced is green. Over 80% of electricity comes from fossil sources (coal and gas) and the rest from nuclear power and other sources.
If the heat pump works on fossil-fuel based electricity, CO2 emissions will amount to 925 kilos on average per house. That is 40% less than if a gas-fired condensed boiler were used. In other words, the production of green power must be expanded considerably to make electric heat pumps CO2-free.
Electric heat pumps have other disadvantages. They are quite expensive – including installation and low-temperature radiators the purchase price varies between 9,000 and 19,000 euros. An electric heat pump that uses outside air is cheaper on average than an electric heat pump that uses heat and cold storage. Moreover, electric heat pumps can only be used in well-insulated houses. An electric heat pump does not deliver high enough temperatures for houses that are not well insulated.
Hybrid heat pump
The hybrid heat pump is much more affordable than its electric counterpart: between 4,000 and 8,000 euros. Its efficiency, however, strongly depends on the temperature of the outside air. If that gets below 12° C, which happens quite a lot in the Netherlands, its efficiency is strongly reduced and natural gas has to be burned, on average between 20% and 50%.
The production of green gas must be scaled up drastically. At this moment a mere 0.2% of Dutch gas is green
How much CO2 is saved with a hybrid heat pump partly depends on how much green electricity is used, and on the type of gas that is used. If green power and biogas or “green hydrogren” is used, the hybrid pump is CO2 neutral. But if 50% natural gas is burned and the pump uses “grey” electricity, emissions are some 1200 kg CO2 per year, which amounts to a saving of just 20%.
In other words, the emission reduction from hybrid heat pumps will remain limited if no additional investments are made in the production of green power and green alternatives for natural gas.
KVGN scenarios show that in 2050 just one-sixth of remaining heat demand will still be delivered by a boiler, mainly in houses that have insufficient insulation, making an electric heat pump unprofitable. In addition, these houses are often unsuitable for a connection to a heating network because they are located in areas of low building density or where there is no room left to build underground pipes. Gigler estimates that in 2050 some 1 million out of 7 million houses will still need gas, probably in combination with a hybrid heat pump.
Thus, gas will still be used in both ordinary condensed gas boilers and in hybrid heat pumps in 2050. Most of this will be “green gas”, according to Gigler. The Dutch gas industry intends to expand its production of green gas (i.e. biogas which is processed to make it suitable to be delivered in the existing system) and hydrogen considerably over the next decades. In rural areas locally produced biogas can be used.
To be able to do this, however, the production of green gas must be scaled up drastically. At this moment a mere 0.2% of Dutch gas is green.
In addition to green gas, Gigler believes hydrogen will be an important sustainable alternative for natural gas in 2050. This can be produced by converting renewable electricity into hydrogen through electrolysis. However, at this moment hardly any production of such “green hydrogen” is taking place in the Netherlands. The hydrogen currently being used in industrial processes is based on natural gas. This too then will require new investments.
The fourth and last alternative for the gas-fired boiler is a connection to a heating network, also called district heating. To evaluate the emissions from district heating, we need to know what source is used for heating. This can be waste heat from a power plant, factory or waste processing facility, but also geothermal heat.
The big advantage of district heating compared to a heat pump is that houses do not necessarily need to be well insulated. Existing heating networks deliver heat of some 90° C to households. As part of this heat is lost in the network, the sources must be able to supply heat at 110° C. Facilities that can do this are, for example, biomass-fired plants, waste-burning facilities, combined heat and power plants, geothermal wells and waste heat from industrial processes. If houses are well insulated, lower temperatures may be used, in which case other sources can enter the picture, .e.g. data centres or skating rinks.
As to costs, in the Netherlands the government sets a maximum price each year for heating networks, which does not exceed the price of natural gas for heating. So for consumers there are no added costs as long as this policy remains in place.
The emission reductions that can be achieved with heating networks depend on the source of the heat. Research (Dutch link) from consultancy CE Delft from 2016 shows that a heating network can reduce CO2 emissions by 45-70% compared to a gas boiler. The biggest saving is achieved if waste heat from industry is used or geothermal heat. The smallest saving occurs if the heat comes from a gas-fired CHP plant, i.e. when it is a by-product of electricity generation.
“We should only build new district heating networks in regions where we know we can connect sufficient geothermal sources in future”
But heating networks have disadvantages and limitations too. First of all not anybody can be connected to a network. That depends on the availability of heat and the distance between source and customer. “Transport losses in heating networks are a concern if transport across large distances is needed. There shouldn’t be too much distance between the source and the user to be able to deliver heat efficiently”, says Gigler. “In a province like Zuid-Holland it makes sense to build a large heating network, because there is a lot of waste heat available from industry in Rotterdam and there is a high building density. For other parts of the Netherlands this can be different.”
Another disadvantage is that there will be long-term dependency on the heat supplier. This can lead to problems if the supplier moves away or closes. Another issue with waste heat is that it’s a secondary product. This can be a problem if there is demand for heat but the primary process is not running. These limitations can be partly addressed by connecting several sources to the network.
According to Gigler, heating networks should rely primarily on the existence of geothermal sources in the region. “We should only build new networks in regions where we know we can connect sufficient geothermal sources in future”, he says. This would prevent lock-in of fossil-fuel supply sources. The locations of geothermal sources in the Netherlands are being investigated by IF Technology (Dutch link).
100% emission reduction
So what can we conclude?
Suppose that we will disconnect 170,000 houses from the gas grid per year and that alternatives are deployed as sketched by the KVGN. And suppose that everyone invests in insulation in the coming 35 years. Even then it is not certain that the ‘gas-less neighbourhoods’ will lead to 80% reduction of CO2 emissions, as the government is hoping.
In the figure below we show the emission reduction potentials discussed earlier. It shows that the total emission reduction depends on the availability of green gas, hydrogen and green electricity. Only if all heat pumps run on green power and sufficient green gas or green hydrogen is available for hybrid heat pumps and boilers can we be sure that the transition to a gas-less society delivers the results aimed for.
In short, the transition to gas-less heating is far from simple. Tailor-made solutions are necessary, and even more: additional investments in sustainable electricity generation, hydrogen and green gas.
Eline van den Ende follows the Master’s Degree program Systems Engineering, Policy Analysis and Management at the Technical University Delft. She has written this article as part of a traineeship at Energy Post.
You can find a Dutch-language version of the article on the website Duurzaam Bedrijfsleven here.
D. Jansen says
Eline, heating networks have much more disadventages in the Netherlands. Power generation plant produce heat for the networks and it is not waste heat. ( real waste heat is ~45 degrees celcius and not the 100+ needed ) .
It would also be nice to look deeper into the CE-Delft report mentioned, this firm bases their reports on their own older produced reports and it’s totaly unusable for real data. They use 15% loss of heat while in the Netherlands the heat loss in large DHC networks is about 30-35% in the networks and due to less insulation in the houses and cheap DHC equipment in the houses another 15% loss compared to natural gas.
The government is failing on the maximum price for DHC it’s 25% more expensive compared to natural gas and a regelar boiled.
Please look at ( in Dutch ) stadswarmte.blogspot.nl and the Dutch DHC users heatlaw consultation answers.
DHC is a total mess in NL driven by politicians & old poiticians in waste company’s. It’s not sustainable at all.
( NL imports about 20% of it’s waste to keep the waste DHC networks running with gasoil ships… )
Frans Rusting says
Good start of a very useful discusssion. I hope.
I have two questions:
What about pure electrical heating? Using, e.g., the old system of storing heat in bricks, stones when electricity is cheap. I realise that this does require upgrading of the infrastructure, but isn’t that required anyway?
I may have missed it, but I have never seen (results of) studies about environmental impact of large-scale use of geothermal systems. I have no reason to believe that there is a problem, but it seems better to know for sure….
Rok Pernuš says
What really makes (a lot of) sense, is reduction of space heat consumption (to some 30kWh/m2) in combination with co-generation and district heating. So the gas could be used much more rationally. Providing of course, other issues D. Jansen in this regard are addressed. Netherlands is also in quite unique situation with a lot of steady wind, so is the one of a few countries, where wind energy actually might even make some sense, although intermittency is still a problem.
Rok Pernuš says
There was a typo…it should have been…”Providing of course, other issues, D. Jansen mentions in this regard, are addressed”…
Math Geurts says
Less gas makes sense, gass-less is non-sense in the country blessed with the best gas distribution network on earth. Unfortunately, in this country with an orthodox calvinist tradition nowadays there are quite some orthodox greens, who only love photovoltaics. The mismatch with energy demand for space heating is awfull.
Netherland can of course get away with natural gas at a cheaper costs for the consumer and the environment… Detailed analysis can be found in the heat roadmap project website (contrary to the anlaysis of the gas lobby which don’t publish these assumptions these study are peer reviewed science).
Also useful to counter the claim of the gas lobby are the reference document “Best available technologies for the heat and cooling market in the European Union” by JRC, of course if you don’t use the BAT on the market your study will be bias. For example no mention of solar district heating though it has been successfully implemented in Almere or no mention of interseasonal storage though there are more than 200 ATES system in the Netherland..
Heating with natural gas does not make sense in other applications than high temperature industrial process (1/3rd of the needs of the industry), no natural gas should be ever used for space heating at all : using a 800°C flame to heat air at 21°C is the energy efficiency equivalent of using a chainsaw to cut butter… Just remove all the subsidies and preferential treatments given to the gas grid and the market will kill the solution.
Math Geurts says
Orthodox Dutch greens just don’t accept heat distribution systems. The seasonal mismatch is a serious problem for individual systems. The Netherlands shoud be aware of it’s strenghts: off-shore wind and it’s unique gas distribution grid.
Who are these orthodox greens that only want PV? Your comment smells of straw man.
Bas Gresnigt says
Heat distribution systems have a bad smell here in NL:
– No flexibility compared to gas.
– Heat leakage due to the long pipes. Those long pipes make the system also expensive.
– Officially it should not be more expensive than gas, but in reality people consider it to be significant more expensive.
It seems to me that those systems are near their end due to the rise of heat pumps in combination with rooftop solar (and storage).
Last week I visited a family in a suburb of The Hague who replaced their connection with the heat distribution system by such combination.
Tom Maes says
I can hardly believe this statement: “If the heat pump works on fossil-fuel based electricity, CO2 emissions will amount to 925 kilos on average per house. That is 40% less than if a gas-fired condensed boiler were used. ”
Is the comparison skewed by omitting the insulation factor (with/without) ?
Paolo Basso says
I find the article interesting and I like the idea to use several technologies plus insulation to meet the targets.
Has any thought been given to gas heat pumps?
Paolo Basso says
(in addition to my previous comment)
And to solar thermal and biomass boilers?
D. Klip says
Recently the Clingendael International Energy Programme has published a paper on this topic – The Transition of the Residential Heating System, which digs deeper into some of the issues raised in the article above.
Wandering Dutchman says
The (heating) solution seems to be: Reducing energy / heating demand whilst generating a surplus of renewable electricity that can be used for electric storage heating and the production of hydrogen by means of electrolysis of water.
Bas Gresnigt says
I miss the role & effects of CHP (Combined Heat Power) burning NG (natural gas) taking into account the existing installations.
Most CHP heat greenhouses and increase CO² levels in the greenhouses so the plants grow better.
Such CHP produce already ~30% of Dutch electricity.