‘The problem of heat’ – different European approaches

low-carbon heatDave Hawkey and Janette Webb of the REDish project (University of Edinburgh) talk about their comparison of German, Danish and UK approaches to low-carbon heat.

The REDish project (based at the University of Edinburgh School of Social and Political Science) is comparing heat and energy efficiency policies and practices in Denmark, Germany and the UK. Using concepts from social studies of energy markets and technologies, we are examining developments in central government policies and implementation, and the interactions between state and city policies and practices.

Our preliminary findings show that “the problem” of low-carbon heat and low energy buildings is understood in different ways in each country, depending on its relationship to the history and current structures of energy systems and political-economy.

Danish and German approaches

For example, in Denmark and Germany the “problem of heat” is situated in relation to policy for a renewable energy system by 2050. In this context renewable heat and energy efficiency, and particularly the high energy performance of buildings, are very clear objectives. Among other things, these objectives are translated into ambitious near-term plans for improving the building stock, with policy makers arguing that the key opportunities for improvements between now and 2050 are limited to critical moments of renovation or sale, thus increasing the urgency of action.

UK energy efficiency policy

In the UK, while energy efficiency and low-carbon heat are also regarded as important, the necessary upgrades to buildings to meet 2050 zero emission targets are not clearly specified. Neither is there any governance process in place to agree on future transition to low-carbon heat supply. This is in part due to UK policy for keeping a broad array of supply side options open (nuclear, hydrogen conversion of gas grid, heat networks, CCS, renewables).

Within the resulting broader range of uncertainty, policy for retrofitting buildings is constituted as less urgent, with some policy makers arguing that the most cost-effective path to 2050 may involve concentrating energy efficiency upgrades in later periods, when uncertainties and costs are assumed to have decreased.

Costs and benefits

The different constructions of the problem of heat in our three case study countries are also associated with different representations of the costs and benefits of alternative low-carbon heat supply options. We are focusing on the ‘technicalities’ of formal cost-benefit analyses as a means to reveal the consequences of seemingly minor or benign differences in variables for the evaluation of ‘cost-optimal’ future heat systems.

In the UK for example, the inclusion of costs of commercial finance in appraisal of the efficiency potential of combined heat and power (CHP) technologies results in radically different scenarios for district heating from those in Denmark and Germany, and implies that there is limited value from such systems. We are continuing, in the current phase of research, to explore the inter-relations between these macro-level political-economic and policy dynamics and meso-level sustainable heat initiatives in the cities of Birmingham, Glasgow, Aalborg and Hamburg.


Dave Hawkey, Research Fellow and Jan Webb, PI. University of Edinburgh School of Social and Political Science


REDish (Reframing Energy Demand – Innovation for Sustainable Heat) is one of nine ‘working with centres’ projects that were funded in 2014 to allow researchers not already working in the existing EUED Centres infrastructure to carry out new research aligned to the Centres. REDish is working with the Centre on Innovation and Energy Demand (CIED)

More information on REDish


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