Climate-neutral heating instead of burning natural gas: this is how cities make the thermal transition

Institute for Ecological Economics Research

Climate-neutral heating instead of burning natural gas: this is how cities make the thermal transition

  • Constantly developing alternative heat sources such as wastewater heat
  • Convert public buildings into renewable heat and form district heating networks
  • Ambitious energy restructuring also in environmental protection areas so that rents including heating remain affordable
  • The BMBF “Urban Heat Transition” project of the Institute for Ecological Economic Research, the law firm Becker Büttner Held and Berliner Wasserbetriebe present recommendations

Berlin, April 26, 2022 – The advancing climate crisis, the war in Ukraine, associated uncertainties and rising prices – there are many reasons to phase out oil and natural gas as quickly as possible when it comes to heat supply. To ensure that the thermal transition in cities progresses more quickly and effectively, the energy experts of the “Urban Heat Transition” project recommend a mix of measures: cities should develop spatial heating planning and exploit all sustainable heating potentials such as wastewater heat. Furthermore, they should expand district heating, form district heating networks, especially around public buildings, and support the right energy renovations in environmental protection areas. Funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), the Institute for Ecological Economic Research (IÖW) has developed recommendations for states, cities and municipalities with the business law firm Becker Büttner Held (BBH) and Berliner Wasserbetriebe, as well as with representatives of the Berlin Senate and the district administration and district managers.

Using the Berlin example, the research project examined the central aspects of a climate-neutral heat supply. So far, the capital still depends on natural gas for two thirds of the heating sector, 17 percent on diesel and five percent on coal. “Berlin is facing challenges with the thermal transition that other cities are also experiencing: rising rents fuel fears of costly renovation projects, change has not yet reached the districts despite funding for cookware and technologies such as the use of heat. of wastewater is only slowly being implemented, “explains project leader Dr. Elisa Dunkelberg of the IÖW. “In two and a half years of practical research, we have put together solution strategies that should not be missing in any urban heat planning”.

Higher thermal insulation standards even in environmental protection areas

On the next heating bill, tenants can feel how expensive reliance on fossil raw materials is right now. Even if the markets calm down, the price of CO2 will rise. For this reason, an energy efficient renovation that goes beyond the minimum legal standards can also apply from the tenants’ point of view: if the landlords use the subsidies and share the modernization costs equally, the rent including heating and heating will remain stable or even falling, as the researchers calculated.

Especially in environmental protection areas, municipalities should therefore make ambitious renovations possible more than before: “Ambitious energy renovations have so far been approved in the approximately 70 social conservation areas in Berlin. The same applies to the switchover from underfloor heating. gas to renewable energy or district heating “, says Charlotta Maiworm of BBH. “To maintain long-term economic rents, these projects should be approved, but only under certain conditions or conditions, so that the costs for the tenants cannot exceed the measures according to the minimum regulatory standard.” the team summarizes in a guideline.

Alternative heat sources: wastewater heat & Co.

To use resources efficiently and minimize energy imports, local heat sources must be used extensively. While some cities have great potential in individual areas, such as Munich for geothermal energy and Hamburg for industrial waste heat, other cities such as Berlin have to tap the full potential and strive for a broad combination of environmental heat pumps, heat commercial waste, direct use of electricity and biomass.

One source of heat available in all cities throughout the year and which only needs to be “exploited” is the heat of waste water: it could be an important element for the future energy mix and, for example, cover up to five percent of the heat requirement in Berlin in the future. “For municipal heating planning, cities need information on where and to what extent wastewater heat is available and how it could be used,” says Michel Gunkel of Berliner Wasserbetriebe. “In the ‘Urban Heat Transition’ project, we then processed this data into a geo-based tool – the wastewater thermal atlas – which we are currently testing in an internal test phase.”

Heat planning and district heating networks

Information from the wastewater thermal atlas needs to be combined with other data such as heat demand for heat planning. The goal of heat planning is to find out where and with which future heat supply climate neutrality can be achieved in the best and most cost-effective way. District heating makes sense where renewable heat and residual heat potential exceed the needs of individual buildings. “Public buildings play a key role in reducing local heat sources,” emphasizes Elisa Dunkelberg. “If, for example, there is a large waste water heat pump installed, it can also supply the surrounding houses via a district heating network.” Example calculations show that with planned federal funding for efficient heating networks, district heating can be offered in the neighborhood at competitive prices. Researchers also propose measures to facilitate implementation, such as model contracts and lists of criteria.

At the “Urban Heat Transition – How Cities Can Provide Climate Neutral Heat” conference in late March, more than 300 administrative employees and district leaders from various cities uncovered the current state of urban thermal transition research. Conference guidelines, infographics, publications and materials:


More information:

  • Orientation: Energy renovation in Berlin’s environmental protection areas: this is how tenants and climate protection get along (Download the pdf)
  • Research paper: Dunkelberg et al. (2022): Public buildings as nuclei for district heating with zero climate impact (Download the pdf)
  • infographic of the project

Project information:

The project Urban thermal transition it was coordinated by the Institute for Ecological Economics Research (IÖW). The members of the association were Berliner Wasserbetriebe and the Becker Büttner Held (BBH) commercial law firm. The Senate Department for the Environment, Mobility, Consumers and Climate Protection, the Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf district and the Neukölln district were involved as municipal partners. The project was funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) under the funding initiative “Sustainable transformation of urban spaces” of the funding priority of Social Ecological Research (SÖF).

Specialized contact person:

Dr Elisa Dunkelberg

Institute for Ecological Economics Research (IÖW)

Phone: +49 30 / 884594-36

Press contact:

Richard Harnisch
Institut für ökologische Wirtschaftsforschung (IÖW)
Tel.: +49 30/884594-16

Das Institut für ökologische Wirtschaftsforschung (IÖW) ist ein führendes wissenschaftliches Institut auf dem Gebiet der praxisorientierten Nachhaltigkeitsforschung. Rund 70 Mitarbeiterinnen und Mitarbeiter erarbeiten Strategien und Handlungsansätze für ein zukunftsfähiges Wirtschaften – für eine Ökonomie, die ein gutes Leben ermöglicht und die natürlichen Grundlagen erhält. Das Institut arbeitet gemeinnützig und ohne öffentliche Grundförderung. Das IÖW ist Mitglied im „Ecological Research Network“ (Ecornet), dem Netzwerk der außeruniversitären, gemeinnützigen Umwelt- und Nachhaltigkeitsforschungsinstitute in Deutschland. | |

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