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A few weeks ago, my business partner and I were walking to a meeting in Stratford when we realised we were surrounded by several heat networks (seven actually): each one standing alone, isolated from its neighbours, each dependent on its own small boilers or CHP, each its own tiny monopoly. Seven networks right next to each other, brazenly missing the opportunity to reduce cost and carbon by linking together.

Here he his, pointing them out:

 

 

The scene on that Stratford street corner highlights a failure of coordination on the part of planners and a lack of incentives to link small heat networks to each other and to larger-scale sources of low-carbon heat.

But what if we put it right? Imagine for a minute that we do stitch together groups of small networks, perhaps using the £320 BEIS funding to do it. Technically it might be straightforward, but what about commercial structure? What do you do with all those little monopolies?

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What... is the efficiency of your district heat network?

What… is the efficiency of your district heat network?

In order for district heating (DH) to fulfil its potential and deliver wide-scale decarbonisation of heat in the UK, it must demonstrate three things:

  • Efficiency: DH networks must transport heat energy from source to customer with low losses.
  • Low carbon emissions: using DH must result in demonstrably lower emission by connecting customers to sources of low-carbon heat.
  • Value for customers:  heat customers must have the means to ensure they’re getting value for their money.

So how are we doing? And what progress have we made in meeting these three challenges so far?

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Here’s a presentation I did at this year’s Utility Week Live about using data to improve the performance of heat networks. In it, I talk about why networks are often poorly delivered and operated and what can be done to put them right. Incidentally, I was also pretty ill and hopped up on flu meds but I think I got away with it.

UWL

 

This post originally appeared on the Network Magazine website on 12 May.

We’re often told that energy data is valuable. Less often discussed is the fact that handling data can be risky. But just as not all data is equally valuable, some types of data are riskier than others. The trick is to maximise value while minimising risk.

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Operational data from onsite energy systems (like heat networks) is extremely hard to come by. Very few people manage to get hold of it, and those who have it rarely share.

What are the typical loads in dwellings? What are the network losses? Do customers all demand heating at the same time or are demand events spread out?

Who knows? Engineers don’t stick around and find out how their designs work in real life; ESCOs hold their cards close to their chests; and many landlords fail to extract or make use of their own data.

This dearth of data has hamstrung the industry at a time when it should be racing ahead. It’s one of the biggest reasons why, when it comes to energy performance, we’re just not getting better fast enough.

In late 2014, when DECC put out a call for proposals to improve heat networks, we saw a chance to unlock some of these data silos and accelerate development of the heat market.

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gilliganAndskipperIn a shock move, last autumn the chancellor allocated £300m to heat networks to be spent over the next 5 years. This funding presents a golden opportunity, but there’s a real danger it will be spent delivering more of what we’ve already got.

Largely driven by planning policy, the district heat market is currently made up of tens of thousands of small networks, each on its own little island with few connections to bigger sources of low carbon heat. Poorly delivered and rarely checked, many of these networks suffer from dismal efficiency.

As I pointed out in my last post, the industry is busy grappling with just getting the basics right: reducing heat losses from networks and protecting end customers. But time is short: the UK’s looming carbon targets mean that even at this early stage in market development, we have to stay focused on the endgame of CO2 reduction.

So how should DECC spend the money? Here are my suggestions:

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heat just got real

SJGR

The chancellor has allocated £300m to heat networks. What happens next matters – a lot.

When I started working in the low carbon sector in the early noughties, it felt like we had all the time in the world. You could tinker about with gizmos like earth pipes and building-mounted wind turbines and feel like you were doing good. Hockey stick carbon graphs seemed a bit abstract and rarely got people’s blood pumping.

The intervening years have flashed past. Now in 2016, Governments, businesses and communities around the world have woken up to the scale of the threat from climate change. Pressure to act is mounting.

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