Europe’s leading climate cities need technological clarity – like no hydrogen in heating



Adrian Hiel

Publication date

December 15, 2023

“From the Viennese perspective, achieving the energy revolution is crucial for achieving climate neutrality. But this is incredibly hard to do. It’s a very long process, which requires a lot of patience. Just think about the massive effort that is needed to exchange hundreds of 1000s of gas boilers for climate friendly alternatives, or what it takes to carry out thermal rehabilitation for all our buildings. This operation is clearly a massive intervention that will affect everyone’s lives, in the most personal space of all in our homes,” said Jürgen Czernohorszky, Executive City Councillor for Climate, Environment, Democracy and Personnel at the City of Vienna. “We want to increase their (citizens) life quality by ending the dependency on foreign resources. Phasing out fossil gas and oil is a political goal.”

Councillor Czernohorszky was speaking at the Decarb City Pipes Conference in October about lessons from installing district heating and cooling systems in seven European cities. One of the big lessons was the lack of time. Self-serving games played by gas DSOs to promote unrealistic solutions such as widespread biomethane or hydrogen cost us all a tremendous amount of time. District heating and cooling systems take years or study to design and even more to implement – the longer we wait for their mass rollout the less time we have to hit our climate targets.

“It will bring opponents to the scene, we will inevitably face resistance. The gas lobby is powerful and will try to convince us to tone it down by using framing concepts. One of these framing concepts comes with a slogan ‘green gas everywhere for everything’. But it’s easy to see through. Vienna has made it clear that it wants real change. Thus, phasing out gas means phasing out all gases in the building sector. This includes green gas, which is far too valuable to use it for heating apartments,” he continued.

The UK has just cancelled the second of its proposed hydrogen heating trials after public protest at heavy-handed gas companies who wanted to impose hydrogen heating on a village in a desperate attempt to prolong the life of their assets. It is a credit to the citizens in Redcar, UK and hydrogen experts such as Abigail Dombey and Michael Liebreich, who freely gave their time to counter the narrative that hydrogen is a good heating option for anyone other than boiler salespeople and gas network owners. 

“Real changes in the system require acts of bravery, acts of political bravery, and they require going on a mission. This is our mission. Everything that positively moves a society forward is preceded by the decision to go on a mission,” said Czernohorszky. “We have no other choice but immediately start phasing out of fossil gas and oil.” 

The recent European Performance of Buildings Directive lacked that political bravery. The standalone fossil fuel boiler by 2040 has too many loopholes to be truly effective as it leaves the door open for ‘green’ gases and hybrid heating systems. But all is not lost. Member States can still choose to move forward with a complete ban on fossil fuel boilers and of course the funding to install clean, efficient district heating and cooling networks in our cities.

“Vienna has its own municipal utility for district heating, gas and electricity. This allows us to control thermal planning of the city. Many other cities, however, are not so fortunate. This is why clear parameters made by the European Union are so important.”

One of those parameters will be deep consultation with citizens – to engage them in the process of transforming their cities. This is a costly endeavour in terms of time, people and resources but it is the only way to ensure that people understand why we are changing our cities and who should be the beneficiaries of those changes.

“But you must never forget to lay our focus on the people who are affected by this system change. We must at all costs involve, inform and support every citizen throughout the whole process. We need to make sure that the people can grasp the necessity of our mission, and more importantly support it. And they must not carry the full financial weight of this project,” he concluded.