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.



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


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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Randy Cambell knows: sometimes halfway is worse than nothing at all.

Randy Cambell knows: sometimes halfway is worse than nothing at all.

The Heat Network Code of Practice is likely to become intertwined with building regs. In particular, heat networks that comply with the Code could be treated more favourably under SAP.

But as I highlighted in the last post, we’ve got a problem: there’s currently no such thing as a Code-compliant heat network. For SAP to reference the Code, some form of Code compliance regime will be required.

DECC has said it wants to keep any such regime light touch, which seems reasonable. But, as I hope to describe in this post, a light touch regime could greatly damage the heat market. In other words, the wrong compliance regime would be worse than no regime at all.

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Heat networks finished 2015 on a high. In a year in which the Government hammered almost every other part of the low carbon sector, heat networks not only escaped harm, they unexpectedly received a £300m boost in November’s Comprehensive Spending Review. And there may even be further support if projects can secure a share of new innovation funding at DECC.

So you might expect this market to rapidly pick up speed. But funding is only part of the picture. Even more important is policy, because just like a species is shaped by its ecosystem, heat networks are shaped by their policy landscape.

This landscape can be defined by three key features: the CIBSE Code of Practice, the Heat Trust rules and SAP. Influential as they may be, these three features aren’t set in stone. Far from it. All three will undergo major changes in 2016, with so much potential to shake up the market that it’s tough to predict how projects will look (commercially, technically, legally) a year from now.

What might these upcoming changes mean for projects, practitioners and operators?

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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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Final energy

UK Energy by End Use

Nearly all of the primary energy we use in the UK is in the form of  coal, oil and gas. This energy is the source of almost all our emissions – emissions which must be slashed to reduce the risk of catastrophic climate change.

When considering this challenge, rather than look at the primary energy, it’s useful to look at what we use the energy for.

Given the recent press about “keeping the lights on” you might think most of our energy is for generating electricity for lighting and appliances. But you’d be wrong. Using DECC’s energy consumption statistics for the UK, I put together the pie chart above to illustrate.

The result? We mainly use energy for just two things: heat and transport. In other words, almost all the energy we use is for warming things up or moving things around. And only a tiny proportion is for lighting.

So the next time you hear the word energy, don’t think electricity. Don’t even think oil and gas. Think heat and transport – this is where we’ve got to innovate to meet our carbon targets.

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