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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

 

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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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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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Last week, Bill Watts at M&E practice Max Fordham wrote a passionate rant against CHP and heat networks on the Construction Manager website.

The crux of Bill’s message is that real world losses on new build projects are higher than losses calculated using manufacturers’ specs and SAP. How much higher? Bill’s not sure – he says that only ESCOs know how well or how poorly heat networks are working. But in any case “much higher than we’ve been led to believe.”

A few days after the original article appeared, Construction Manager ran a follow up piece in which people from the building industry try to rebut Bill’s argument. In general the respondents make the case that CHP and DH have an important role to play in decarbonising heat, with several highlighting that the Heat Network Code of Practice should improve the performance of new networks.

But in my view the industry respondents missed the key point.

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In the previous post, I highlighted where innovation is taking place in the UK district heating market. In this post, I’d like to flag up some important areas where innovation isn’t happening – but really should be. Below are a few of the biggest blocks in the market, where change is desperately needed but so far not forthcoming.

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