Dutch cities gain new powers to disconnect gas users and accelerate shift to district heating

Citizen participation remains a key challenge

The Dutch government recently passed the “Wet Gemeentelijke Instrumenten Warmtetransitie” (Municipal Heat Transition Instruments Act) as part of its national transition out of gas. To understand what this new law means for Dutch cities and citizens we asked Stephan Brandligt, Energy Cities board member and President of the Dutch Climate Alliance (Klimaatverbond Nederland) as well as former deputy Mayor of Delft to explain why it is so important and what other EU countries can learn from it.

What is this new law?

The (Municipal Heat Transition Instruments Act) is part of the energy transition towards district heating. Local authorities have been given the control over this process, but they needed legal instruments to make it happen. The new law gives them those instruments. The most important one is they now have the right to decide that a certain neighbourhood will lose its gas connection. This is in contrast with the previous situation where every citizen had the right to get a gas connection for houses built before July 1st, 2018. Of course, cities cannot just decide to cut off gas, there needs to be an affordable alternative, e.g. a district heating system.

How does this law help cities?

There was not a direct benefit, they need to do this to meet the targets for reducing CO2. Recently another argument has come into play: congestion on the electricity grid. District heating can play a major role in reducing congestion problems.

What role is there for citizens in determining the future heating system they use?

It is not possible for individual citizens to decide what they want, because in that case a collective system would never be possible. Input from citizens must be organised on a larger scale and is very important. If this is not done in a meaningful way, there will be a lot of protest against district heating. In that respect I’m very glad that a month ago in Delft the final investment decision has been made to build a district heating system. It is the system I worked on for many years when I was in office.

Is it expected to be controversial that citizens do not have a free choice in heating systems? What kind of local steps are there to communicate why this is happening and ensure that there is not a financial penalty?

Indeed, district heating is only possible when gas is cut off (but you are not obliged to connect to the district heating if you have another solution meeting the same sustainability standard). This will be controversial if the alternative is not good enough. For that we also need a new heat law, which is coming this year as well (hopefully). The first phase of the district heating in Delft does not involve individual homeowners, but only social housing in apartment buildings (about 6000 homes).

To see if your country’s legal and financial framework is ready for heat decarbonisation be sure to check out our online EU tracker with an analysis of all 27 EU member states.

What else needs to be done to ensure the decarbonisation of the Netherlands’ buildings?

As mentioned before, the new heat law is also necessary. This law will ensure that the heat infrastructure must be in public hands (controlling majority). And that there are rules to protect citizens against unreasonably high prices.

What are the lessons for other countries from this law and the Dutch process for ending fossil fuel heating?

The whole process now goes too slowly and is too difficult. The national government has to take more control over (certain parts) of the energy transition and set the right conditions. Currently local authorities must sort it out by themselves and most of them are not capable of doing so (or lack the political will).

As mentioned above, grid congestion is a big and fast-growing problem. The development of district heating and the expansion of the electricity grid has to be planned together. This is fairly new and we still have to learn a lot how to do this best.