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The Opportunities of New District Heating

When the Department for Energy and Climate Change announced the launch of a £6 million funding programme for the development of district heating and cooling networks across the UK, I was relieved. Energy policy in the UK often plays to the tune of ‘one step forward, two steps backwards’, so to have some clear and undoubtedly positive direction from the government is welcome in my eyes.

4th October 2013    |     Peter Rolton: Chairman, Rolton Group

This is particularly true in light of the recent furore over energy prices; the initiative offers one method through which communities can take some of the power back (no pun intended) from the main energy companies by decentralising their supply. If we are to have a fair and competitive energy industry, Minister for Energy and Climate Change Greg Barker is right to say that ‘the Big Six need to become the Big 60,000’.

Over the next 18 months, local authorities will have the opportunity to bid for a slice of the new funding to go towards the design of projects that translate into real energy, cost and carbon savings. We’re not at the front of the pack here, either: elsewhere in the world, district heating schemes are already de rigueur. For example, Iceland has recognized the potential held within the vast stores of geothermal energy under its surface and has built a heating network that provides sustainable and low-cost heat to the majority of the country’s residents.

Obviously, the UK’s geography is somewhat different to this, and we sadly don’t have access to the same low-hanging fruit. This problem, coupled with the high up-front cost of installing networks that are properly insulated and fully functional, goes some way towards explaining why district heating hasn’t taken off in quite the same manner as it has abroad. What we do have, however, is a desperate need to up the ante in terms of our domestic energy production. As nice as it would be to have free energy ready for use on our doorstep, we’ve got to look at other options and, sadly, other options aren’t cheap.

There is light at the end of the tunnel, however: combined heat and power (CHP) plants are designed to minimise heat loss throughout the process of creating electricity by recapturing and channeling it, thereby making it an ideal candidate for district heating. Waste to energy plants also present an opportunity for councils to reduce their waste sent to landfill by recycling it, which helps them towards reaching the EU target of a 50% recycling rate by 2020. Clean gasification represents a different class from traditional incineration methods; it’s the way forward for waste to energy, and although there are still some who still protest against it, these plants should be recognised for the important role they can have in supporting communities.

The other aspect of district heating, of course, is the benefit of decentralisation; by spreading plants to where they are most required, they can be placed strategically to bring power closer to the point of consumption and ensure maximum output. Decentralisation is also a powerful political tool, as the government is well aware. Consumers are growing increasingly unhappy with living under the terms of the ‘Big Six’, and by introducing financial initiatives for councils that could make them more independent, an encouraging nudge is given that makes the jump towards developing schemes look slightly less frightening.

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