LoLo student Paula Morgenstern on her visit to the Houses of Parliament. The visit was sponsored by the Energy CDT Network

LoLo student Paula Morgenstern on her visit to the Houses of Parliament. The visit was sponsored by the Energy CDT Network
4th March 2014 Alison Parker

LoLo student Paula Morgenstern on her visit to the Houses of Parliament, sponsored by the Energy CDT Network

PRASEG & CHPA seminar – Heat Networks: how to make low carbon affordable heat a reality

Much energy research (including my own) and policy efforts focus on electricity, despite heat being the bigger demand nationally and 80% of a typical UK household’s fuel bill. Last year, the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) published their heating strategy ‘The Future of Heating: Meeting the Challenge’ to counter this trend and take a closer look at how low carbon heat can be provided up to 2050. It concludes that heat networks will be an important part of the necessary least costs mix of technologies with up to 20 % of homes served by heat networks from 2030. Currently, however, only 2% of the UK heat demand from domestic, public and commercial properties is met through centralised generation and distribution from heat networks. This PRASEG and CHPA (Combined Heat and Power Association) seminar looked at how to bridge the gap.

Clearly, the goals for the development of heat networks in the UK are ambitious: In late 2012, Islington Council formally inaugurated the exemplary Bunhill Heat & Power scheme supplying heat to 700 homes and two leisure facilities – after more than three years of development. To meet London’s targets for heat networks, one such scheme would need to be built every week from now one. So challenges are by no means small, here some of the main issues discussed in the seminar:

Public acceptability: While the Pimlico District Heating Undertaking has seen huge public interest and received more than 1200 visitors during last year’s open house, some cultural barriers around heat networks remain despite re-branding efforts because district heating ‘sounded too much like something Russia did’. They include questions around monopolies and how mandatory connections to heat networks can be; an issue brought up though the audience but not addressed by the panel. A suggestion here could be that the mandatory connection of public buildings and large commercial buildings to heat networks might be possible immediately, thus showcasing their effectiveness to overcome confidence issues for home owners and allowing for binding legislation further down the line.

Up-front cost for infrastructure: According to DECC, heat networks will be an essential part of our infrastructure in the future. Investment in other infrastructural systems such as transportation is often subsidized, should this be made the case for heat networks? Views in the room on this question are mixed with industry advocating an approach more holistic than a simple trade subsidy including measures to build consumer confidence and provide an assurance on procurement. Due to extreme waiting times to enter parliament, I unfortunately missed the first part of the discussion, but I understand that financing mechanisms for investment in heat network infrastructure and cheap loans following the Scandinavian example were also discussed.

Stable policy environment: Potentially as important as how to finance heat network development is the question where to finance them at all in the current political situation. A company with an impressive track record of district heating installations in Denmark is quoted in answer to the questions what it would need for them to invest in the UK with one major demand: “a stable policy environment”. This is of course a necessity for investment in any kind of renewable or energy efficient technology (or indeed any investment) and the MPs present during the discussion promise to try and draw parliament’s attention to the issue. At this point of the discussion, a certain cynicism and some party politics gleams through referring to ‘casualties’ of the energy efficiency industry after the recent ‘rollback’ of green levies.

Understanding heat demand: It is claimed, that the use of heat is so far poorly understood due its local and consumer driven /controlled nature. In particular, implications of the synchronicity of heat and especially domestic hot water use for the dimensioning of heat networks need to be clarified for future developments. At the same time, research funding for projects looking at heat often remains lower than funding for electricity projects on e.g. demand shifting or electric vehicles.

Skills: Given the scale of new schemes to be constructed sufficient skills in planning and implementation will be essential. CHPA and CIBSE (Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers) are working towards a ‘Code of Practise’ here which hopes to not only underpin the quality of heat network installations, but also provide training and accreditation for building district heating. Funny enough, in the impressive queue to get through parliament security check, I chatted to a lady working in the construction industry who was attending the launch of a report on youth unemployment. She strongly advocated more publicity for construction to make it an attractive job choice for youngsters which it unfortunately often is not.
Source of distributed heat: Somehow strikingly, during the entire discussion around heat networks little is said about how the heat to be distributed through the networks will be generated. On enquiry, gas CHP is promoted as cost-effective and proven technology while CHP fuel flexibility is considered important. Alternative fuels – industrial waste heat, biomethane from anaerobic digestion or sewage heat pumps are presented as interesting, but somehow futuristic options indicating that despite the title of the seminar ‘Heat Networks: how to make low carbon affordable heat a reality’ the carbon agenda has dropped far behind affordability concerns over the last month.
Thank you, Energy CDT Network, I greatly enjoyed my visit to Parliament. After the meeting, there was time to explore the beautiful building and to get a glimpse of a House of Common’s debate on Flooding from the public gallery.