Renewable Heating and Cooling Lags Behind Renewable Electricity Despite Significant Demand

Recently, the Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century, more commonly known as REN21, released their annual Global Status Report which serves as a global industry update tracking renewable energy trends worldwide and providing insight into potential opportunities for market or policy growth. This year’s report highlighted two interesting trends for global renewable energy. The first is that the power sector is the driving force behind the growth of renewables and the second, unsurprisingly, is that the growth and acceleration of renewable deployment is not happening fast enough, especially outside of the electricity sector. A prime example of this lackluster growth can be seen within the heating and cooling and transportation sectors. Together these sectors account for 80% of the world’s total final energy demand, yet they have consistently been the slowest to adapt and implement renewable energy.

The heating and cooling sector alone accounts for 48% of the world’s total final energy demand. However, global policy support for renewable heating and cooling (RHC) technologies pales in comparison to renewable electricity. Out of 194 total countries, 146 have some form of either a national, state, or provincial target for renewable electricity, whereas only 48 countries have some sort of renewable heating and cooling target. Taking that comparison a step further, 57 countries have set a 100% renewable electricity target, yet there is only one country that has set 100% renewable heating and cooling targets (Congrats, Germany!). The cities of Munich and Osnabrück have both set 100% renewable heating targets.

At the end of 2017, renewable thermal energy only comprised around ten percent of total energy consumption for heat—primarily bioenergy, followed by solar thermal and geothermal respectively. The industrial sector specifically has had a particularly difficult time deploying RHC technologies due to their high-temperature heat requirements which are further exacerbated by lack of research and technology development around potential bioenergy solutions.

Additionally, renewables have also yet to form a large proportion of cooling services. Currently, cooling represents about 2% total final energy consumption but is rapidly growing according to the International Energy Association (IEA). Modern building design and increased use of computers and other appliances have contributed to growing demands for cooling within the buildings sector. However, the report notes that there is massive potential for growth around renewable cooling solutions. For example, regions with high demand for cooling and refrigeration are typically also areas with high solar resource such as the Middle East, where air conditioning makes up the highest proportion of electric bills. Recently in 2017, demonstration plants were constructed in Dubai and Kuwait to demonstrate the potential of solar cooling units in the region. This dynamic provides an opportunity for the advancement of renewable cooling systems not only in various sectors, but at numerous locations around the world.

Finally, the report also emphasizes that heating and cooling sectors are getting boosts thanks to electrification, with major countries such as the United States and China leading the way. China has outlined in its Thirteenth Five-Year Plan to realize 450 TWh of electricity consumption from electrification, expanding on their rural electrification plan that planned to bring renewable electricity to 3.5 million homes. While countries are leading the way on electrification, several Fortune 500 companies and other industrial end users have begun to advance their energy sustainability strategies to focus not only on renewable electricity but electrification, as well as the myriad of renewable thermal technologies, to reduce their footprints as well.

Similar to how the corporate renewable electricity trend has gone global, companies are poised to play a leading role in advancing the deployment of RHC technologies. Nevertheless, companies and local governments still need options that deliver sustainable, cost-competitive options at scale. This is where initiatives such as the Renewable Thermal Collaborative (RTC) can help companies navigate the challenges that come with expanding their renewable energy use into the heating and cooling sectors. Of course, there is still a substantial amount of work to be done in order to address the changing needs of corporate end-users, but there is also tremendous opportunity for business to take the next step and lead the transition beyond just renewable electricity and to renewable energy.

This past month, L’Oréal became the Renewable Thermal Collaborative’s seventh founding Member—joining Cargill, GM, Kimberly-Clark, Mars, Proctor & Gamble, and the City of Philadelphia—showcasing their support for advancing renewable thermal energy. Their objective to achieve carbon neutrality at all 19 of their manufacturing and distribution locations is supported by their newest project, purchasing renewable natural gas (RNG) from the Big Run Landfill in Ashland, KY.

According to Jay Harf, Vice President of Environment, Health, Safety and Sustainability for L’Oréal Operations Americas, “This accomplishment would not have been possible without our team’s determination to tackle the carbon emissions from our own heating systems, a difficult challenge shared across industries. We are proud to have found a local solution and approach with the potential to be replicated at landfills across the country.” At the RTC, it is our goal that companies and industries can drive projects and policies that will transform the future of renewable thermal energy.