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District heating: delivering affordable and sustainable energy

A block of flats in London

A jointly authored report by CSE and Changeworks on social housing and district heating.

Project duration: November 2015 to May 2017

This report, District heating: Delivering affordable and sustainable energy, jointly authored by CSE and Changeworks, explored the experience of social housing providers with district and community heating systems. 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 potential to take heat from waste heat from industrial processes, combined heat and power (CHP) engines or large scale heat pumps, and other low carbon sources. By operating at scale, heat networks have the potential to switch multiple buildings and whole communities to low-carbon heat more easily than replacing individual boilers.

District heating for social housing

In recent years there has been a surge of interest in heat networks 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, district 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.

A block of flats in London
There’s a good fit between district heating and blocks of homes owned by housing associations and local councils, like this one in Central London.
Photo: Scott Wylie, reproduced under creative commons.

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 benefits.
  4. Financing schemes in a way that does not require residents to pay high standing charges and unit prices.

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 and many landlords need support and guidance to undertake such a project. The Government provides investment to help councils and developers to fund the development of new and improved heat networks. CSE and Changework’s report helped set out the wider issues that those planning schemes needed to consider.

This research was funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Download the full report:

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