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Social acceptance of innovative renewable heating and cooling systems: Barriers, hindrances, drivers and incentives (D2.2)

Friedrich, Thomas; Stieß, Immanuel

Executive Summary

Deliverable 2.2 presents the results of Task 2.3, “Social acceptance of innovative renewable heating and cooling (RE H/C) systems: barriers, hindrances, drivers and incentives”. This task is part of TRI-HP’s work package 2 (WP 2) which has the overall objective to explore potential social implications of TRI-HP systems and improve the stakeholders’ acceptance towards these systems. Particular emphasis is given to market acceptance in order to understand potential barriers and hindrances for the adoption of TRI-HP by market participants.

In Task 2.3, interviews with experts in Germany, Switzerland, Spain and Norway were carried out to understand and determine barriers and drivers that influence the acceptance of (RE H/C) systems. The focus is on those market participants who are key stakeholders for adopting RE H/C systems, including:

  • Decision makers (e.g. investors or building owners who make investment decisions for a building)
  • Planners and technical consultants for the design and technical functionality of H/C systems in buildings (architects, HVAC consultants, building engineers, etc.)
  • Experts for the successful installation of H/C systems (Installers, tradesmen, plumbers etc.)
  • Manufacturers and distributors of HP systems
  • Building or facility managers in charge of operating and maintenance of H/C systems

The in-depth investigation of stakeholder views covered a broad range of topics: economic-financial aspects, issues related to the practical implementation and feasibility as well as psychological, socio-cultural and organisational aspects. Risks and safety concerns, standards and regulations and the importance of different stakeholder groups are further topics which were explored in the interviews. In order to understand how these topics and concerns may vary according to differing basic conditions, the empirical investigation took climatic, geographical, regulatory, market and cultural conditions in four European countries into consideration.

Thirty-six expert interviews were conducted in Germany (DE), Switzerland (CH), Spain (ES) and Norway (NO). Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, most of the interviews could not be realised face to face, as initially planned, but were held by telephone. Potential interviewees were identified, using different sources: internet research via search engines, publicly accessible contact portals and personal networks of TRI-HP project partners. Finally, numerous contact recommendations were made by the interviewees themselves. All interviews were conducted between March and November 2020 by ISOE. An overall interview guideline was developed by ISOE which was translated in national languages. Data management and evaluation were carried out exclusively by ISOE. All interviews were fully transcribed and coded with the MaxQDA analysis software.

The analysis yielded rich findings on barriers and drivers which impede or foster a market uptake of RE H/C systems. High investment, upfront costs and additional costs, especially if refurbishment measures are required, were the most frequently mentioned financial hurdle for RE H/C systems such as TRI-HP. High operating costs which are closely due to electricity prices were seen as another barrier, because they reduce the cost effectiveness of RE H/C systems. Uneven distribution of costs and gains can pose another barrier when an investor is unable to reap personal benefit from low operating costs (landlord–tenant dilemma).

Poor energy efficiency standards of existing MFBs have often been identified as an important practical barrier that impedes a broader adoption of RE H/C systems in this segment of the building market. Many stakeholder held the view that an efficient operation of HP systems requires expensive and disruptive measures such as insulation of the building façade or the installation of underfloor heating. An accurate design of RE H/C systems and the need to adapt these systems to user behaviour profiles were seen as another major challenge, especially with regard to configuration of the individual components, and quality control.

Another major barrier is the shortage of qualified installers, who were described as a “bottleneck” in many countries. Qualification and training paths as well as the business model of many heating installers are still strongly rooted in fossil technologies, hampering a swift decarbonisation of the heating sector. The extensive technical and practical knowledge required for planning, implementation, operation and maintenance of RE H/C systems was identified by many stakeholders as a major challenge for broader acceptance,.

In the interviews, many drivers and incentives were mentioned that could enable and support a broader market acceptance of RE H/C systems. The low operating costs of RE H/C systems and their reliance on basically inexhaustible energy sources were emphasised by many interviewees. Carbon taxation and ongoing changes in the regulatory framework of energy markets are expected to further increase the competitiveness of renewables. Public subsidies were highlighted as a main lever with which to ease the burden of the high upfront cost of RE H/C systems and increase social acceptance of this technology. Maximising self-consumption of RE generated on site – as is the case with TRI-HP – is considered a very effective means of keeping operating costs as low as possible and becoming largely independent of the electricity market. Innovative business models such as energy contracting can ease the burden of high upfront costs and reduce financial risks for property owners.

A higher standardisation of HP manufacturing could take the pressure off installers, who would no longer have to grapple with a variety of barely compatible systems from different suppliers. Compact, space-saving systems or modules that come off the shelf and can be installed and replaced via plug-and-play increase feasibility for both new and existing buildings. Ready-made and simple solutions such as combined packages of, for example, an HP with PV and electrical storage would be appreciated by investors and installers.

Many stakeholders highlighted the importance of non-technical aspects. Awareness raising and trust building among end users and professional actors are key to increasing social and market acceptance of RE H/C systems. Prevailing prejudices and rumours among end users, heating installers and architects must be countered with transparent information on the benefits of RE H/C systems. Communication should not only focus on technical aspects and financial benefits, but also address environmental values that intrinsically motivate stakeholders and end users to invest in renewable technologies and systems. These include, for example, the desire to lead a more environmentally friendly life, to practice energy self-sufficiency, or to participate in the decarbonisation of energy production.

The expert interviews show that in all countries with the exception of Norway, the heating sector still sticks to fossil business models and path dependencies, and a decarbonisation of the residential building sector is only in its early stages. Nevertheless, the uptake of HPs is gaining momentum in some countries and market segments. In Germany, existing laws, regulations and funding conditions relevant for the market diffusion of RE H/C were assessed as basically favourable. A critical major bottleneck is seen to be the lack of sufficiently qualified installers. Existing offers for vocational training and further qualification are hardly used by tradesmen and installation businesses. High prices for electricity in Germany can lead to high operating costs unless a high share of self-sufficiency with on-site generated electricity is achieved. In Switzerland the HP System Module was highlighted as a successful quality standard which could serve as a best practice example for other countries as well. The HP System Module includes a standard for the planning, construction and commissioning of HPs (>15kW), certification, binding procedures, and performance guarantees, easy-to-understand documentation and regular quality checks. The adoption of the HP System Module is supported by specific funding conditions.

In Spain RE funding policy is still less elaborated compared to Germany or Switzerland. Building and apartment owners have only little economic capacity, and so the upfront costs play a major role for many residents. Direct savings are often preferred over long-term savings. In addition, extensive H/C systems are generally not yet very widespread, partly because there is a very individualistic heating and cooling culture, with a strong desire for individual H/C solutions for each flat.

Norway abounds in electricity from hydropower, and electricity prices are very low. The country has a huge potential for HPs due to cheap electricity. Heating systems are predominantly based on electricity and cooling demand is low due to the climate. Moreover, since operating costs are low, a heating culture prevails in which it is not very common to save energy. For complex RE H/C systems such as TRI-HP this can be a hurdle, as the population's willingness to pay for alternative heating systems is rather low. Advanced sector coupling with a high share of e-mobility offers additional opportunities to integrate smart RE H/C systems in the energy grid.

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