District heating with complexity: Anticipating unintended consequences in the transition towards a climate-neutral city in the Netherlands

C. Gürsan*, V. de Gooyert, M. de Bruijne, J. Raaijmakers

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

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District heating systems are considered a feasible heating alternative to replace natural gas to mitigate emissions in cities. However, urban transitions are very complex because energy systems often operate in densely populated areas, which gives rise to all kinds of interdependencies in cities. These interdependencies can result in unintended consequences which can indirectly help or hinder urban energy transitions. Understanding these influences the transition to climate neutrality. This research investigates the lessons learned from a project conducted in Rotterdam: a high-density city in the Netherlands which is expanding its district heating systems. We use qualitative system dynamics models to explore the underlying complexity and to recognize indirect consequences of policies. Our results cover both technologically oriented and policy-oriented insights, contributing to the literature on transition governance in cities. On the one hand, the national and urban strategies in the Netherlands activate mechanisms that support cities with district heating systems such as Rotterdam. On the other hand, the same strategies could also lead to a potential rivalry between energy efficiency and energy security, which are both crucial goals in urban transition governance. Participative modeling provides policy-makers with an analytical tool to detect systemic dependencies which can be used to identify synergies and barriers among different energy policy objectives. This helps avoiding potential unintended consequences including the use of carbon-heavy systems and displacing investments from energy efficiency and renewable heating systems.

Original languageEnglish
Article number103450
JournalEnergy Research and Social Science
Publication statusPublished - 2024


  • District heating
  • Energy transition
  • Feedback effects
  • Infrastructure interdependencies
  • Socio-technical systems
  • System dynamics


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