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Climate protection requires a building revolution and accelerated digitalization

In 2015, representatives from nearly every country in the world came together at the international climate conference in Paris. Their common goal: to shape humanity’s actions in a more climate-friendly and sustainable way. Here, Germany set ambitious goals, too. A major milestone on the road to accomplishing these is the climate package 2030, which contains extensive measures to reduce CO2 emissions. It has already been agreed, but the related laws must still be adopted in the Bundestag (federal parliament) and Bundesrat (federal council).

But already now it is clear that, alone, the measures agreed by the government probably won’t be enough to achieve the goals. Rather, what is really required is massive changes, not just in politics and the economy, but in private life, too. Because, the sooner the change to more energy efficient and resource-saving lifestyles takes place, the more effectively the CO2 emissions can be reduced.

The key factor required for a successful turnaround in energy and heating is the modernization of outdated heating systems – in other words a building revolution. There are 21 million heating systems installed in Germany, and two thirds of them are outdated. Bringing them up to date could reduce energy consumption in Germany by 13 to 15%. Up-to-date gas or oil-fired calorific value heating systems reduce heating costs and save up to three tons of CO2 every year (Fig. 1). A relatively small investment with enormous effect.

The CO2 savings are considerably higher if the old boiler is replaced by an innovative fuel cell heating device, such as the Vitovalor, for example (Fig. 2). Compared to a typical solution with power obtained from a public grid and a conventional heat generator, a fuel cell system virtually cuts the CO2 emissions of a household in half. That is why the federal government offers subsidies of up to 11 100 euros to support such an installation.

Combinations of fossil and renewable heat generation – such as solar heat, or with self-generated electricity from the PV system – improve the bottom line even more. So everyone can considerably reduce their CO2 footprint already now. But despite the technical possibilities available today and the existing funding programs, at 3% the replacement rate is stagnating. The framework for a redesigned “heating system modernization” subsidy program must be communicated as quickly as possible, and applied retroactively – otherwise we run the risk of investments being postponed, instead of encouraged.

Today’s generation must pass on the buildings of today to the next generation in a condition that is fit for the future. A building should really offer optimum room comfort and air quality, both for wellbeing at home as well as at work, because we spend 90% of our time inside (Fig. 3).

Moving toward climate-neutral buildings in 2050 with declining emissions. This increases the value of the real estate, and with that the biggest investment most of us will make in our lives. This way we maintain our cultural legacy, create attractive living spaces, and generate lasting value at the same time.

Digitalization transforms a building into an interactively integrated component made up of power and heating systems – each a part of the central nervous system of a climate-neutral national economy. Digital building engineering and artificial intelligence allow room temperatures and the use of resources to be adapted precisely to individual needs, and to detect defects in the system engineering early on and rectify them. Sensors and assistant systems are already popular: There are three times as many sensors installed in our homes than there were five years ago. More than 80% of users of smart-home systems say they make daily routine easier (Fig. 4). A reliable framework for the efficiency of buildings, intelligent networks, and for data security should accelerate digitalization. 

To make buildings climate-neutral by 2050, we need to replace fossil energy carriers with renewable ones. This can be accomplished with electricity from wind or solar energy, to drive heat pumps, for example. A further option is the use of gaseous and liquid fuels based on regenerative energies, such as hydrogen from power-to-gas systems, green gas and e-fuels (Fig. 5).

Studies forecast competitive prices for hydrogen and methane produced synthetically, comparable with today’s price for natural gas. CO2-free fuels help optimize the energy policy triangle of sustainability/supply security/competitive ability – so they help strengthen Germany, too. The use of a broad mixture of technologies, which would include renewable gases and oils, would mean considerably lower costs for the energy transition than in a scenario which involves dependence on broad electrification in all sectors. That is why the framework for the development and effective use of CO2-free fuels should be rapidly developed.

The heating industry is a key player, and not just as driver of the energy transition, but in the context of the national economy: more than 100 companies with roughly 75 000 employees generate some 15 billion euros annually. The building revolution is a generator of new products, supply chains and business models. Companies are powerful innovators, and offer digitally connected heating and air conditioning technology already today for a variety of energy carriers. But the need for investment remains high. For the energy transition, decisions related to research and development require a reliable policy framework. This will facilitate long-term value creation for future technologies – such as high-efficiency heat pumps, stationary batteries, or data-based smart-home services – in Germany, too. Including highly-qualified jobs at manufacturers, the trades and suppliers.

With its climate protection package, legislators have now sent out a signal. But it is only a first important step. More must follow. The general population must profit from the opportunities the energy transition has to offer. And from the buildings, which offer a pleasant, healthy room climate for living and working – with affordable energy costs. And from the electricity, which they can generate, store, consume and feed into the grid themselves. And from the incentives to intelligently adapt their own electricity and heat consumption to flexible prices. And from the neighborhood solutions, which intelligently network heat, cooling, and electricity. A community-oriented energy transition ensures popular appeal and mobilizes private capital – and it is the only way it can succeed.

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