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There are no quick fixes to long-term energy challenges. To find solutions, governments and industry benefit from sharing resources and accelerating results. For this reason the IEA enables independent groups of experts - the Energy Technology Initiatives, or ETIs1.

District Heating and Cooling

Through innovative municipal planning, this new suburban housing development is linked to a district heating network (Neidonkallio, Finland).*

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Policy context
The fundamental idea of district heating and cooling is simple: connect multiple energy consumers to cost-effective, environmentally optimal heat sources through a piping network. Sources of the heat could include combined heat and power plants, biomass or biomass/coal co-firing, capturing geothermal heat and natural sources of heating and cooling, or recuperating industrial waste heat. Policies and measures to promote these efficient systems include financial and fiscal support, utility supply obligations, local infrastructure and heat planning, emissions trading, interconnection measures and capacity building. 

The ETI focusing on district heating and cooling including combined heat and power (DHC) examines energy efficient supply, notably cost reductions through improved heating pipes and substations; efficient end-use through efficient customer connections and demand side management; and reducing the gap between supply and demand through thermal storage and system optimisation. There are currently nine Contracting Parties. 

The overall objective of one recent DHC study, Policies and Barriers for District Heating and Cooling outside European Countries, was to identify and review key institutional barriers to development and review best practice of district heating and cooling in 13 countries (Canada, China, Korea, Russia, the United States and selected European neighbouring countries). In China and Russia, some 200 million people are served by DHC systems.

The District Heating Technology Platform supported by the European Commission addressed these issues for 14 European countries. Working together, the two studies covered 95% of networks worldwide.

Case studies for each country focussed on the current situation, the policy framework, as well as highlighting barriers to further deployment. Cross-country comparisons and analysis highlighted best practice in sustainable development of district heating systems. 

Another DHC study, District Heating for Energy Efficient Building Areas, aims to understand cost effectiveness of installations, particularly as district heating networks are very location- and case-specific. In northern Europe, district heating networks reach 80% to 90% of central urban dwellers where heat demand is highest. Yet only 10% to 15% of outlying areas (e.g. suburban communities with a majority of single-family dwellings) are connected to district heating systems as they were not previously considered to be economical.

Systems installation is considered to be cost effective when it achieves 1 Megawatt hour (MWh) per metre per year (MWh/m/yr). This ‘benchmark’ is based on DHC systems for multi-family dwellings located in densely-populated urban areas. The study found that installing district heating systems can also be cost-effective in outlying areas, despite the lower heat demand density of 0.5 MWh/m/yr. In outlying areas there are far fewer design and construction constraints related to existing infrastructure (telecommunications or sewage systems) and lengthy approval processes. In addition, the piping design for low heat density areas is simpler and can be made from lighter, cheaper materials. 

* Photo courtesy of Kari Sipila.

Current projects

  • Improved maintenance strategies for district heating pipelines
  • Integrating renewable energy and waste heat with district energy systems; economic and design optimisation
  • Towards fourth generation district heating: experiences with, and potential of, low-temperature district heating

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1.Information or material of the IEA Energy Technology Initiatives, or ETIs (formally organised under the auspices of an Implementing Agreement), including information or material published on this website, does not necessarily represent the views or policies of the IEA Secretariat or of the IEA’s individual Member countries. The IEA does not make any representation or warranty (express or implied) in respect of such information (including as to its completeness, accuracy or non-infringement) and shall not be held liable for any use of, or reliance on, such information.