District heating: delivering affordable and sustainable energy report

A report written with Changeworks on social housing and district heating

Project duration: November 2015 to May 2017

This report, District heating: Delivering affordable and sustainable energy, published by Changeworks and written in partnership with CSE explores the experience of social housing providers with district and community heating systems. CSE’s lead on the project, Dr Nick Banks said the report was an important step in understanding both the opportunities and challenges that social housing landlords face when installing heat networks.

District heating, or heat networks, distribute energy that is generated in a central location by a large boiler. The boiler could be fuelled by conventional fuels such as natural gas but the scale of heat networks also offers the opportunity to take heat from low carbon sources such as waste heat from industrial processes, heat from combined heat and power (CHP) engines or large scale biomass boilers. By operating at scale, heat networks have the potential to provide low cost and sustainable heat supplies.

They are often significantly more efficient than individual boiler and heating systems and offer massive potential to reduce carbon emissions. In recent years there has been a surge of interest in district heating from social landlords, largely because of its potential to deliver affordable warmth and to realise social and economic benefits in communities.

On the face of it, there is a good fit between district heating and blocks of homes owned by housing associations and local councils - not least because manage homes in concentrated clusters easily served by a heat network, and, as 'landlord', the housing association or council can benefit from economies of scale. And of course destrict heating can also help social landlords deliver energy efficient homes, tackle fuel poverty, reduce carbon emissions and improve energy security.

For this reason, social housing could be a shot in the arm for the district heating sector.

But designing, installing and operating a new district heating system is a complex undertaking requiring social landlords to adopt a new role as an energy supplier. It can significantly alter their business model and the types of support they offer to residents experiencing difficulties with energy, fuel poverty or debt.

Four factors are critical for a sustainable and affordable system:

  1. Building robust community and stakeholder buy-in
  2. Ensuring effective metering and monitoring so that landlords thoroughly understand system performance
  3. Using the technology at a sufficient scale to realise benefit
  4. Financing schemes in a way that does not require residents to pay high standing charges and unit prices

Nick explains further: "This report demonstrates that establishing a sustainable and affordable heat network is dependent on getting things right at all stages of development - from design through to construction, commissioning and operation.

"District heating systems are still establishing themselves as a technology here in the UK, so many landlords need support and guidance to undertake such a project. There's already good work being done in this respect, in particular the code of practice published jointly by the Chartered Institute of Building Services Engineers and the Association for Decentralised Energy. The potential is there and when they're done right the social and environmental benefits from heat networks are huge."

More information about the research is available on Changeworks' website, along with the full report. This research was funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Photo: Scott Wylie, reproduced under creative commons

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