10th August, 2023

Ask the Experts: Stuart Wood discusses district heating networks


According to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), the heating sector in the UK accounts for almost one-third of the UK’s annual carbon footprint. Not only that, but 17% of the emissions caused by heating buildings come from homes, meaning that heating our homes produces carbon emissions equivalent to the use of all petrol and diesel cars. Therefore, reducing the carbon emissions produced by heating our homes will be an essential step on the journey to net zero.

Since updates were introduced to the building regulations Part L last year in a bid to reduce emissions, there has been an industry-wide push to replace fossil-fueled heating systems with renewable solutions, especially heat pumps. While heat pumps are an ideal solution when it comes to complying with new regulations and reducing carbon emissions, they can prove costly for residents to run.

This month, we spoke to Stuart Wood, Product Manager (Sustainable Heating) at Polypipe Building Products, on why district heating networks may be the perfect solution for reducing both carbon emissions and energy bills.

What are district heating networks?

District heating networks are systems which distribute heating and hot water through an underground network of insulated pipes using heat generated from a central energy source. These systems are able to service multiple properties or multi-occupancy buildings – or a combination of both. They provide a reliable and efficient heat source that can be coupled with renewable technologies to provide a cleaner and more sustainable energy system, reducing reliance on fossil fuels.

What are the benefits of district heating over other renewable heating solutions?

While renewable solutions such as heat pumps will help the UK achieve net zero targets, cost remains a key barrier for many. One of the biggest benefits of district heating, other than reducing carbon emissions, is that they operate at much lower temperatures than gas boilers, making them a much more energy and cost-efficient solution. On top of this, residents will not only benefit from efficient operation but also economies of scale as heat networks are able to service a large number of properties from the same energy source.

What’s more, these networks also have the ability to harness and reuse waste heat, further increasing their sustainability credentials. A great example of this is how the waste heat from the London Underground is being used to provide heat and hot water for residential and commercial properties in Islington.

Heat networks can also be coupled with other renewable technologies such as wind, solar and hydro to provide a cleaner, more sustainable energy system. This means that homes can be connected to a reliable and efficient heat source, even if they are not on the gas network, further decreasing the reliance on fossil fuels.

How popular are district heating networks?

District heating networks have been around for decades, having been used in the UK since the 1960s, and there’s certainly been an increase in the number of successful heat networks in the UK in recent years. However, despite the recent increase, we’re still falling well behind the rest of Europe in the uptake of these systems. For comparison, heat networks meet about 12% of the EU’s heat demand, whereas only around 2% of the UK’s heat is delivered by heat networks.

District heating is particularly commonplace in the Nordic and Baltic regions, and Copenhagen has the world’s most extensive district heating system, servicing over an incredible 98% of buildings which is far ahead of any city in the UK.

However, while only 2% of the UK’s heat is currently delivered by heat networks, the government wants this to increase to 20% by 2050, so we’re expecting to see a sharp increase in the years to come.

Where should district heating networks be implemented to have the most impact?

District heat networks can supply anywhere from just a few homes to multiple buildings and developments, stretching over several kilometres. Residents are likely to feel the most benefit from a cost perspective if their property is part of a heat network that covers multiple buildings, due to economies of scale.

In fact, Government research has found that district heating networks can cut carbon emissions from new housing developments by up to 70% and create energy bill savings of at least 30% when replacing electric heaters with heating networks in tower blocks. So, as well as being environmentally friendly, the cost of delivering heat to residents could be as little as 24p/kWh per day compared to an equivalent figure of 34p/kWh for electric heating, according to the latest figures from the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

In light of the ongoing cost-of-living crisis, social housing providers should seriously consider adopting these alternative methods to support residents in accessing reliable and affordable heating, while also doing their bit to meet government targets and acting responsibly for the environment.

For more information, or to find out how district heating networks can benefit your next project, get in touch with our technical team.

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