Urban Energy Systems – Nordic cities lead the way in decarbonisation

The world is becoming increasingly urbanised and the Nordic countries are no exception. About 85 per cent of the region’s population of 26 million live in cities and urban areas, with Oslo currently the fastest growing major city in Europe. According to the Nordic Energy Technology Perspectives 2016, the progressive climate plans and energy technology options available in Nordic cities could be important drivers for mitigating climate change and moving the world’s energy systems toward carbon-neutrality.

By Páll Tómas Finnsson

Nordic cities eye carbon-neutral energy systems in near future
Nordic Energy Technology Perspectives 2016 (NETP 2016), published by the IEA and Nordic Energy Research, provides a thorough analysis of the investments and technology development necessary to accomplish the Nordic carbon-neutral scenario (CNS), achieving an 85 per cent reduction of energy-related CO2 by 2050. Due to the rapidly growing urbanisation, cities will play a crucial role in this transition and in global efforts to honour the goals of the Paris Agreement.

“In 2050, around 70 per cent of the world’s population will live in cities,” says Hans Jørgen Koch, Director of Nordic Energy Research. He explains that, in 2013, energy demand in urban areas in the Nordic region accounted for 58 per cent of final energy demand. “It’s simply a fact that more and more of the energy consumption takes place in the cities. This is why urban energy systems are most relevant in our work towards a carbon-neutral future.”

Many of the Nordic capitals and cities have adopted climate plans aiming for carbon-neutrality in the coming decades, setting the bar even higher than the already ambitious national targets. Copenhagen aims to be the first major city in the world to achieve this remarkable milestone, by 2025.

“There’s an abundance of interesting initiatives in Nordic cities to make them carbon-neutral,” Koch says. “One of the three main strategic actions identified by NETP 2016 is to tap into these initiatives to strengthen national decarbonisation and enhance energy efficiency in transport and buildings.”

Focus on buildings, energy supply and transport
The NETP 2016 urban energy system analysis focuses on three key areas fundamental to increasing energy efficiency and reducing emissions in urban areas: buildings, energy supply and transport. All three issues are high on the agenda in the Nordic co-operation’s holistic approach to energy systems, which is based on establishing a strong, secure and decarbonised energy supply that allows people to make sustainable choices with regards to their energy consumption and transport needs.

“Our analysis provides evidence that especially the city level and urban level energy systems could operate as a platform for the implementation of new technology, such as smart grids, smart systems and integrated urban transport systems,” says Tiina Koljonen, research team leader at VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, who led the NETP 2016 urban energy system analysis.

She explains that the average citizen in Nordic urban areas consumes 30 per cent more energy than the average EU citizen, mainly due to the colder climate and larger heating demand, but CO2 emissions per capita are 50 per cent lower due to a larger share of renewables, district heating, electric heating, geothermal heating and modern biomass in the heating mix.

“Nordic cities have a relatively energy-efficient energy supply because of the combined heat and power production and the district heating systems,” Koljonen says. “They also have a high share of renewables in the global comparison. The electricity system is almost carbon-free, and carbon-neutral energy production will definitely increase to the point where our energy systems become zero net emission or even net emission negative.”

Energy-efficient buildings and combined heat and power
Buildings account for 43 per cent of the final energy consumption in Nordic urban areas. The transition to low-carbon energy systems therefore calls for concerted efforts to increase energy efficiency in buildings, new and old, and decarbonise the energy supply.

“It’s imperative that we speed up the energy retrofitting of existing buildings,” Koljonen says. “EU policies and regulations require us to move toward near-zero energy buildings by 2020 in the case of new buildings and by 2030 for older buildings.”

Much of the building-related greenhouse gas emissions is indirect emissions from power and heat production. Koch identifies continued development of district heating relying on integration of electricity and heat production as an important challenge.

“Further integration of electricity and heat production would mean that a much higher share of the heat supply could be supplied by surplus electricity from intermittent renewable energy resources, for instance wind power,” he explains.

Extensive transformation of the transport sector
According to NETP 2016, there is a need for an extensive transformation of the transport sector in order to achieve the CNS. Transport energy efficiency must be improved, fuels need to be decarbonised and, in line with policies in most Nordic cities, people should be encouraged to switch to public transport, cycling and walking. Approximately 90 per cent of the transport fuels in the CNS would be new transport fuels, notably second-generation biofuels and electricity.

“One of the tools recommended to achieve the CNS is to accelerate the transition from internal combustion engines to electrical engines for cars and light transport vehicles, and to biofuels for heavier traffic,” says Koch.

NETP 2016 features detailed case studies of the Helsinki Metropolitan Region and Oslo, which has become well known around the world for its initiatives to support the transition to electric vehicles. The City of Oslo aims to halve its emissions by 2030, relative to 1990 levels, ensure that all collective transport runs on sustainable fuels by 2020, and become fossil free by 2050.

“We analysed and defined different technical measures in the building sector, transport sector and the energy production sector that could reduce the city’s energy demand and CO2 emissions,” says Kari Aamodt Espegren of the IFE – Institute for Energy Technology. “The real challenge is the transport sector, which is still primarily fossil-based.”

“However, we have a lot of electric vehicles in Norway, and particularly in Oslo. This is thanks to proactive national policies to support the purchase of electric vehicles and build charging infrastructure. Combined with local initiatives giving further incentives to electric vehicle owners, such as free parking, access to bus lanes and exemption from road tolls, these measures are the key to a successful transition to more sustainable transport.”

The NETP 2016 urban energy system analysis focuses on three key areas fundamental to increasing energy efficiency and reducing emissions in urban areas: buildings, energy supply and transport.

“Further integration of electricity and heat production would mean that a much higher share of the heat supply could be supplied by surplus electricity from intermittent renewable energy resources, for instance wind power”

Hans Jørgen Koch, Director
of Nordic Energy Research

“One of the tools recommended to achieve the CNS is to accelerate the transition from internal combustion engines to electrical engines for cars and light transport vehicles, and to biofuels for heavier traffic.”

Hans Jørgen Koch, Director
of Nordic Energy Research