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How green is district heating?

Last month a BBC 5 Live investigation into district heating networks, raised some alarming concerns about the use of this green technology. While in some parts of the country, district heating schemes have transformed the way communities use energy for the benefit of all, it has not been the same for everyone. Some schemes are not delivering on the promise of cheaper, greener energy, with residents falling into fuel poverty and complaining of regular faults. You can check the 5 Live investigation out here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-39736010

In this blog we take a brief overview of what the schemes are all about, along with some of the pros and cons of district heating networks compared to traditional forms of heating and hot water.

What is district heating?
Instead of relying on individual boilers for heating and hot water in each home, district heating networks use a single communal heat source, which provides heat and hot water to each home via an underground network of insulated pipes.

The communual heat source could be powered by:

  • Power stations
  • Energy from waste (EfW) facilities
  • Industrial processes
  • Biomass and biogas fuelled boilers and CHP plants
  • Gas-fired CHP units
  • Fuel cells
  • Heat pumps
  • Geothermal sources
  • Electric boilers and even solar thermal arrays

 

In larger projects (which require more than one heat source), then a number of diverse energy sources can be used. The Association for Decentralised Energy explains: ‘A heat network enables valuable energy, which is all too often wasted in power generation or industrial processes, to be captured and supplied to householders and businesses. This removes the need for additional energy to be generated. It also allows for economies of scale, as the generation of heat in one large plant can often be more efficient than production in multiple smaller ones.’

The concept is used in many countries around the world and when it works, can provide a very efficient way to provide heating and hot water to entre communities. Now to look at the pros and cons…

Pros:

  • These systems can harness energy which would otherwise be wasted
  • They therefore reduce the amount of energy needing to be generated to heat homes
  • These schemes help the Government hit carbon reduction targets
  • The Government is ploughing £320m in funding into heat networks to encourage their growth
  • These systems have the potential to reduce heating costs - up to 30% in some cases.
  • Best to use in areas of high population.

 

Cons:

  • Can in some cases be more expensive that traditional heating
  • If the one/main fuel source experiences operational problems, whole areas can be without heating or hot water
  • Some residents have complained of high bill estimates if not working off a smart meter
  • The industry is unregulated, so you cannot complain to bodies such as Ofgem regarding heating bills
  • You have to sign up for long contracts (even up to 80 years) and cannot switch suppliers if you are not happy about service

 

See https://www.theade.co.uk/resources/what-is-district-heating for more detailed information on what makes district heating tick.